By Matt.Ross

22 Sep 2010

This week’s interviewee is a probation officer with nearly 30 years’ experience – both in the field, and as a trainer

“I qualified in the early ‘80s, and have trained probation officers ever since – most of the time while maintaining an offender caseload of my own. I’ve worked for many years in a medium-sized, ethnically-diverse English town; crime and deprivation are well below average, but like every town it has its poverty and social problems.

Probation officer training has changed dramatically over the years. When I began work we used to train alongside social workers, but since the late ‘90s we’ve run probation training in-house. Typically, at any one time I’m training and supporting five trainees; each works simultaneously on a caseload of offenders, regular training days, an NVQ and a two-year university degree. I observe their work, train them up, and assess them for their NVQ – sometimes I mentor them too – while taking responsibility for risk management of their caseload.

You could describe this training as a ‘Rolls-Royce’ model: it’s very thorough, with a lot of one-on-one support. But we’re now wrapping up the last cohort to be trained under that system: in future, rather than recruiting trainee probation officers, we’ll train serving ‘probation service officers’ (PSOs) – less qualified, lower-paid staff recruited in recent years to handle lower-risk offenders – up to probation officer level.

The idea has its strengths. For one thing, trainees will be experienced people who know what they’re getting into. What’s more, under the old system, PSOs who wanted to become probation officers had to apply for training, resign, and come back in as trainees on a lower salary; unfortunately, this year there weren’t enough jobs to go round, and some people qualified only to find themselves without work.

However, under the new system trainees will no longer be managed by dedicated, hands-on tutors like myself; instead, they’ll join regular staff under the management of senior probation officers, and be appraised on their NVQs by assessors. So they’ll get much less tutoring and support, and it’s difficult to know how the seniors – who are very stretched anyway – will manage.

Another major change came with the introduction of OASYS records for each offender. It’s a computer-based system shared with the prison service, which aims to ensure that each offender is the subject of a consistent form of risk analysis and assessment, and a risk management plan. This obviously has benefits, but each file has to be updated at least every 16 weeks and it’s a massive task: we have to complete every field, even if it’s not relevant, and it’s very time-consuming.

If we don’t update our OASYS files in time, we miss a target and that can impact on budgets. We’re being measured on the process rather than the results, and a lot of wasted effort goes into needlessly updating parts of these records. Obviously, all this paperwork reduces the amount of time we can spend working directly with offenders, and adds to the huge pressure that probation officers are put under. The fear is that, what with all the record-keeping, report-writing and target-monitoring paperwork, people won’t have time to get to know the offenders on their caseload, do proper assessments and watch for any warning signs that risk has been under-assessed. The staff are very committed and work long hours – but they often feel very beaten-down.

The merger with the prison service under the National Offender Management System hasn’t improved morale. There’s quite a feeling of distance between frontline staff and the probation service’s senior managers – it often seems that they don’t understand the pressures at the sharp end – and within NOMS, probation is very much the minority service. These two issues can lead to odd management decisions: for example, when looking at the completion rates for offenders attending programmes, NOMS doesn’t seem to take account of the fact that probation officers don’t have a captive audience! On the other hand, the creation of NOMS has improved communication between probation and prisons, and improved liaison on individual offenders.

That’s really important. When there are cases of people who’ve been on probation and have committed serious offences, the reports often show that the problem has been a lack of liaison between different agencies. And we now have dramatically better liaison with the police; they used to see us as the ‘other side’, but now there’s a lot of risk information being shared and even some cross-service teams. Liaison with social services can sometimes be a bit tricky, though – perhaps because they’re also overstretched.

All in all, nowadays risk is much more carefully assessed and managed than previously, but the OASYS system does reduce the time we can spend with offenders, and the monitoring processes are incredibly onerous. We put a vast amount of staff and management effort into demonstrating that we’re hitting the targets, rather than focusing on tackling offending behaviour. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be targets; ultimately, though, the job shouldn’t just be about managing the risk that people will offend, but also about working with them to help them change their lives.”

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