I can’t help thinking that picking a fight with the Probation Institute at the moment is an unhelpful diversion. TR continues to creak and there are a host of targets to undermine and defeat these unwarranted changes, not least the efforts in the Lords this coming week. To my mind the Institute is not one of them. In many respects it is the absence of such a body over the past 14 years which has undermined the profession and now makes staff so vulnerable in the new arrangements. Its uncertain birth at this time is unfortunate and the support from the MoJ is double edged. But it is seeking to fill a gap which, though not realised at the time, is one unintended consequence of the move away from social work training in 1996-8.
The Diploma in Probation Studies which arose out of the ashes of social work training was a potential signalling of a new licence to practice. At that time though the Probation Rules relating to qualifying awards were removed and there was no formal indication of what constituted a probation officer. I prepared a paper as part of the work I was undertaking to shape the new curriculum and award. It suggested the need for a body to undertake the registration and develop the qualification framework which would provide that licence. I was told by the Home Office group I was reporting to, to remove that paper from my work. It was regretted by some including Mike Worthington, the Chief Probation Officer of Northumbria who fought unsuccessfully for a replacement statement in the probation rules. This was not acted upon.
The probation profession under New Labour initially appeared to have weathered the storm and the DIPPS was confidently seen as the de facto professional qualification. Work was initiated by the Community Justice National Training Organisation to develop the qualifications framework to include a new certificate level which would have provided an intermediate award for PSOs and other related staff. The complex history of why this did not work is beyond this blog but includes the reluctance of the Home Office to wrest control of what it perceived as appropriate training for unqualified staff and inadvertently this exacerbated the distance between the gold standard of the probation officer award from the increasingly important training needs of other staff, numerically growing in number and strategically changing the roles and boundaries between different grades of staff for ever. An independent body with the support of all the relevant professional organisations and higher education providers would have provided the necessary distance and authority to install a framework which would have been inclusive, graduated to engage different training needs, support the development of an evidence base independent of government interference, a qualification framework and most crucially a voice to represent and grow the probation profession. It did not happen and as a result these crucial building blocks have been piecemeal, uncoordinated, subject to the whim of politicians and unable to play its part in opposing the current privatisation process. Belatedly the Probation Institute offers the best chance to achieve this goal.
It was half anticipated that the line in the TR proposals about an Institute would not be sustained and that there would be moves to quietly drop the proposal. No fan of regulation, the current government are intent on opening up professions across the welfare system which continues a process of de-professionalisation which dates back to Thatcher. In a deregulated system individual workers are vulnerable to the whim of new employers intent on cost cutting and with a less nuanced understanding of the complexities of the probation role. In concert with the role of unions, an Institute can provide a complementary and independent bolt hole against the excesses of deregulation and privatisation. It faces though a whole host of challenges including sustaining engagement, achieving comprehensive coverage, agreeing core values and maintaining its independence.
Whether the Institute is a flawed vehicle or not to meet these challenges the jury is out and, more pertinently, it is the only kid on the block. It has the support of all the professional associations and unions, PCA, PA, Napo and Unison and this is vital. Universities are also engaged in its development as are Skills for Justice, the relevant sector skills council, and these are all vital constituencies. All potential employers need too to find a place as part of the organisation’s development. Crucially the relationship between the Institute and NOMS and the MoJ has to be managed. Probation workers in the NPS must remain part of a single professional framework to enable movement of individuals between agencies, a likely consequence of deregulation. Whilst clear lines of accountability need to be retained so that the institute can operate independently that does not mean the alternative is no relationship at all with the official system. Engagement with all workers, all agencies and all relevant providers is an important goal of the Institute as it establishes an inclusive agenda. This is not yet there, it is being created under pressure and with the lines of engagement complicated, but that must not undermine the attempt to do so.
The Institute needs to meet the needs of a diverse range of people. It has been suggested that it must represent the needs of the workers wherever they sit. It should certainly ensure all workers, from the full array of professional services, should find a home in the Institute. The growing integration of service delivery demands skill sets of increasing complexity drawn from traditional sources like probation workers but also skills from housing, employment, drug and alcohol services, mentoring, restorative justice and many more and a single framework reachable by different but complementary routes will allow workers to develop a more varied career trajectory. Ultimately this will enable workers to move professions and link better to social work for instance. This is one consequence of this not being out in place in 1998 breaking of links between probation and social work. Another element of comprehensive cover is to make sure researchers are encouraged to be part of the sharing of learning. One of the strengths of the past few years has been the way evidence has guided practice. Now we know that evidence has not guided TR (see special issue of the British Journal of Community Justice – http://www.cjp.org.uk/bjcj/volume-11-issue-2-3/ ) and it will be important to ensure researchers are re-engaged so that professional practice continues to be informed by the results of an increasingly rich evidence base.
Though there has been many discussions about values over the last twenty years there remains no agreed set of core values to guide professional practice. It has to be a core activity for the institute so that any subsequent qualification framework is built on a shared understanding of what must be at the core, the essence of the profession. A statement of core values is being developed and it will be an important contribution as a baseline marker for what is acceptable practice.
The fourth challenge is the one which has sparked this blog. If the institute is to work it must remain independent but inclusive of all relevant organisations and individuals. This is a delicate balancing act and the one thing that would undermine this goal is a splitting of focus, is setting groups against each other, risking the disintegration of the enterprise before it has had chance to breathe. The pace of development has been forced by the unwelcome speed of the TR proposals and yet a lead on professional standards is necessary to guide the future of practice if indeed, the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of TR happens by the end of 2014. If TR happens and if (when) it is a disaster then a reference point for professional practice which stands outside the TR arena, which can shape the agenda for high quality practice will be needed to knit together the disparate and fragmenting environment which is becoming today’s reality. It may not work and it won’t work if good will is withdraw whilst it begins to find its feet, its alliances and its shape. As I said at the start of this piece this is a diversion from the fight against TR and bringing the Institute to a halt will not impact on TR in the slightest but might just have an impact on the future of the institution which we know as probation and which many are seeking to preserve. If TR fails the presence of the Institute will belatedly provide the kind of organisation that should have been put in place in 1998 and help to protect the future against a recurrence of this fragmenting and destructive government agenda.