Probation Institute: Right Organisation, Right Timing?

Published 15/03/2016
Type Article
Author(s) Anne Worrall
Corresponding Authors Anne Worrall FPInst, Emerita Professor of Criminology, Keele University

During our ‘Conversation with Paul Senior’ in Kendal in January 2016, we reflected on the role of the Probation Institute (PI) in the future of Probation, especially its role in training and research. One colleague remarked: ‘It’s had a difficult birth; it’s the right organisation but the wrong timing’. This short article takes up this challenge and concludes that, despite its difficult birth, the Probation Institute is the right organisation, with the right long-term timing.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that the creation of the PI was a ‘courageous’ act (Worrall, 2015). Although it was something that had been mooted for a number of years, it was clear that setting up a PI in the political climate of Transforming Rehabilitation was going to be controversial. Despite being supported by key stakeholders such as the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), Probation Chiefs Association (PCA), Probation Association (PA) and Unison, the PI had an uncertain relationship with other stakeholders, notably academics, who felt that they were being simultaneously wooed and kept at arm’s length in the early days. Consequently, there was a lot of perfectly understandable suspicion, among both workers and academics, that this was little more than a governmental concession to placate the old guard of probation and to undermine legitimate protest against the breaking up of the Probation Service. Setting up a voluntary register of practitioners was viewed as especially inflammatory.

Nevertheless, there have been some promising early developments. In particular, the swift production of a code of ethics (Sinclair-Jones 2014), the launching of a magazine (Probation Quarterly) that includes research-based articles as well as ‘news’ and the creation of a Professional Development Framework alongside the professional register, have all suggested that the PI has a vision and that it is independent in spirit (even if not yet quite independent financially). It contributes now to debates through blogs, social media activity, Position papers, professional networks, consultation activities and seminars and conferences.

The Professional Development Framework’s founding principles are that it is inclusive, integrative, adaptive and aspirational. It is intended as a dynamic tool, constantly evolving to reflect the needs of the sector, through discussions with frontline practitioners and managers. It grapples directly with the complexity of the probation workforce whilst also encouraging renewed interest in advanced practice, which some may feel has been rather neglected in recent years. In the context of great uncertainty about the future of qualifying training (Community Justice Learning) the PDF may prove to be an invaluable anchor for those who want to retain and develop their professional identity.

The role of the PI as a centre of excellence for research is also a tricky one. In the early days, the PI became entangled in a rather unhelpful set of discussions about ‘what counts as research?’ While this undoubtedly reflects wider debates both in the profession and in academia, it seems more important for the PI to focus on the encouragement of a range of innovative research that will take it forward, rather than raking over old (and, some might say, unnecessary) battles about the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative research, ‘pure’ research and evaluation, practitioner and academic research and so on. Sue Hall (2015) has helpfully suggested a three-pronged approach for the PI: dissemination of landmark research and commissioning evidence overviews; cross-sectoral and multi-disciplinary analyses; and, practitioner involvement in evaluation. Short-term funding for practitioner research through the Sir Graham Smith Awards (inherited from the PCA) has been a tangible example of the latter of these aims (see, for example, MacDonald, 2014; McDermott, 2015). Although other events and priorities have overtaken progress in the area of disseminating and promoting research, the PI is now back on track, having had the first meeting of its Research Committee and having started to set up its Academic Advisory Panel.

The introduction of a membership category of ‘Fellow’ is another example of ‘courage’ or ‘grace under pressure’ (Worrall, 2015), both in terms of the offer and the take up. The distinction between ‘invitation’ and ‘application’ is an interesting one, made all the more so by the traditional self-effacement of probation worker culture (Mawby & Worrall, 2013). Do you apply to be a Fellow or wait to be invited? To be a Fellow, one has to have made an ‘outstanding contribution to probation or community justice’ and be a recognised expert in one’s field – and also pay £100 per year subscription. One also has one’s photo on the PI website! So is it an example of ‘cash for honours’? Hardly. None of this process sits comfortably with the image of probation work. Those of us who have taken up this particular challenge have done so, presumably, in order to demonstrate our support for the PI and our commitment to contributing to its development. This was certainly the impression given by those who attended the recent inaugural meeting of the Fellows Forum.

Lessons from the College of Social Work
In our discussions in Kendal we were conscious of the difficult political climate surrounding the setting up of the PI and its relationship with the Coalition Government. We were aware of the consternation that greeted the announcement of the closure of the relatively new College of Social Work and we wondered what lessons the PI might learn from it.

The College of Social Work was set up following the death of Peter Connelly in 2008. Its raison d’être was very similar to that of the Probation Institute, though for a very much larger body of professionals. It lasted barely four years and closed in the summer of 2015 amid accusations and recriminations. The government claimed to have invested £8m in TCSW and accused it of being ‘badly led’ and ‘rejected by the profession’. Ministers were apparently ‘unimpressed’ by the ‘standard and pace’ of its work, criticised its corporate membership scheme and claimed that it had failed to find a ‘viable financial model’. They pointed out that TCSW had reached barely half of its membership target of 31,000 and that barely 1000 of its members were ‘active’. In reply, TCSW accused the government of a lack of commitment and unfair criticism of the loss-making corporate membership scheme which, it claimed, had been the government’s suggestion in the first place (Community Care, June to August 2015).

Perhaps fortunately, the Probation Institute is much smaller and less ambitious than TCSW. But it faces similar hazards: over-dependence on government funding, especially if membership does not continue to expand, and the consequent risk of failing to ‘impress’ either the government or the profession. The PI received pump-priming from PCA and the Ministry of Justice. No more money has been forthcoming nor sought from government. Grants for pieces of work have been received, for example, from Forces in Mind Trust to undertake research and workshops into probation provision for armed forces veterans. Although membership has currently reached a plateau, the PI has built its offer on independent individual action and has not pursued corporate membership. It has, however, successfully sought to get into partnership with a range of organisations. These include Unlock, UserVoice, Magistrates Association, No Offence, other voluntary organisations and some CRCs, to name but a few. This is now the strategy for engagement.

Lessons from international evidence on probation
Until relatively recently, the Probation Service in England and Wales tended to be insular in its concerns, paying little attention to what was going on elsewhere, even on its doorstep in Scotland and Northern Ireland. While it may have avoided the worst excesses of the Prison Service in the latter’s deference to the United States, it has been very reluctant to look at developments in Europe. There is now a great deal of research and policy collaboration across Europe in relation to the community supervision of offenders and this is one area into which the PI can venture, promoting genuinely new and innovative insights from collaborative practitioner and academic research across Europe. For example, over the past four years, a group of practitioners and academics from 23 European countries has been meeting regularly, under the auspices of European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) (Robinson & McNeill, 2015) to discuss innovative methods of researching community supervision. Among the results have been two photographic projects involving practitioners and offenders (see Wendy Fitzgibbon’s article in this issue and Carr et al. 2015) taking photographs (on throwaway cameras and smartphone cameras) of their working and supervision environments. The projects have given a ‘voice’ to people who might not otherwise have responded to interview or observation methods.

Another example of new ideas and methods that the PI might wish to support and disseminate is the ‘Eurobarometer’, which is also part of the work of the COST project. This is a structured interview (using a set of questions developed by the researchers in the group) that attempts to capture the experience of supervision from the perspective of those subject to such sanctions. As such it aims to provide a comparative analysis of the experiences of individuals subject to supervision in the community. The structured interview has been piloted in Serbia, Italy, Sweden, Romania, Croatia and England and revised in light of feedback from those researchers involved in its application.

Much of our discussion in Kendal revolved around hopes and fears for the future of probation work. Our fears for the PI were that it would:

• Go out of business
• Become elitist, exclusive and irrelevant
• Fail to curb the division of probation work into NPS and CRC silos
• Fail to secure a full range of training and thus allow under-qualified staff to work with potentially high risk offenders.

By contrast, our hopes were that it would:

• Become a centre of excellence, promoting good practice and new ways of thinking in the new world of NPS/CRC
• Become a community of practice that maintains probation identity and values, yet is cutting edge
• Build on existing research and evidence base, fund or commission good research
• Engage practitioners and make the most of unique partnerships of practitioners, managers, academics and trainers
• Hang on to the ‘Probation’ brand – it will survive!

At the moment, the Probation Institute is sustaining and expanding its activities within tight budget constraints on the assumption that at some point, membership will surge again and it can expand activity to fit the aspirations of those members. There is a lot that can be done without much money and it will continue to do as much as it can (with just two paid staff – a CEO and an administrator) because this is a necessary and worthwhile project. The PI can’t prevent the worst consequences of Transforming Rehabilitation and it isn’t realistic to expect it to do so. It is also unfair to accuse it of making matters worse by cosying up to government and allowing an easier passage for government’s damaging policies. The PI is no more than an opportunity to maintain, and reconstruct positively, a valuable brand, working identity and ethos. It will go in the direction that its members want it to, if they choose to get involved, but, equally, it will only work if they want it to and see it as something of value. Standing back and ‘seeing how it goes’ will result in it failing. The danger is that too many people will only realise that it might have been worth getting involved when it is too late to do so.


Carr, N., Bauwens, A., Bosker, J., Donker, A., Robinson, G., Sucic, I. and Worrall, A. (2015) Picturing probation: exploring the utility of visual methods in comparative research, European Journal of Probation, 7(3):179-200.
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Mawby, R. C. and Worrall, A. (2013) Doing Probation Work: Identity in a Criminal Justice Occupation. Abingdon: Routledge.
MacDonald, A. (2014) Major situation, Probation Quarterly, Issue 1: 7-12.
McDermott, S. (2015) Managing risk, Probation Quarterly, Issue 3: 31-4.
Robinson, G. and McNeill, F. (Eds.) (2016) Community Punishment: European Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.
Robinson, G. and Svensson, K. (Eds.) (2015) Special Issue: Innovative methods for comparative research on offender supervision practice, European Journal of Probation, 7(3).
Sinclair-Jones, C. (2014) The moral compass, Probation Quarterly, Issue 2: 7-14.
Worrall, A. (2015) Grace under pressure: the role of courage in the future of probation work, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 54(5): 508-20