05 January 2021 - What does ‘good’ look like for probation services?

Inspectorates – and HM Inspectorate of Probation is no exception – are often better known for the criticisms they make than for the positive things they say. Our negative reports inevitably gain more news coverage than the services we judge ‘Outstanding’ and I’ve yet to be invited on to the Today programme to talk about a probation or youth justice service that we’ve praised.

That’s a shame as we often find things worthy of praise – whether that’s interesting new innovations or an individual probation officer going that extra mile to support a service user. In discussions I had with local probation leaders before I started as Chief Inspector, they told me they thought we’d lost that more positive side to our role – though our mission statement is clear that we are about identifying and disseminating what ‘good’ looks like, as well as about highlighting poor performance.

So, since becoming Chief Inspector, I’ve looked to put more emphasis on the good and effective practice we see – as well as the problems we identify. Far from relishing a bad news story, I’ve found that my inspection team are as disappointed as anyone else when they find a local service isn’t up to scratch and are pleased when the evidence supports a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ rating. They’ve been more than happy to identify interesting or impressive work to highlight in our local inspection reports and national thematics.

I’ve been keen to go a step further, to spell out a bit more clearly what we think ‘good’ looks like. This isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. The whole debate about ‘what works’ in probation and in criminal justice more generally has been heavily contested over many decades with the pendulum swinging regularly from pessimistic assertions that ‘nothing works’ to more optimistic views that some approaches are demonstrably more effective than others.

Twenty years ago, the Inspectorate played an important role in this debate when one of my most distinguished predecessors, Sir Graham Smith, supported by his deputy Jane Furniss, launched a ‘what works’ project. This led to two important products: Strategies for Effective Supervision published in January 1998, which summarised international research on what works and a guide for frontline probation practitioners and Evidence Based Practice: A Guide to Effective Practice published later that year. This was widely distributed to probation staff and was supported by a national conference and a range of local training events – backed by the Home Office Probation Unit and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation (ACOP). It had a significant impact on the service and is still remembered by those working on the frontline in the late 1990s.

Though the world looks very different now, the need for clear advice on effective practice in probation is as great as ever as we head towards another major reform to probation structures. Which is why this month the Inspectorate is launching a new guide to Effective Case Supervision. It’s a web-based, modular guide, based on evidence from more than 4,500 individual case inspections over the past two years, which aims to show what our HM Inspectorate of Probation quality standards look like in practice when delivered well. Using a range of real-life examples the guide has sections on effective practice in relation to service user engagement, desistance and keeping other people safe, to illustrate what our inspectors are looking for when they assess a case against each of our quality standards around assessment, planning, delivery and review.

Like the original effective practice guide from 1998, our new version also includes links to the research evidence that underpin our inspection standards and it’s accompanied by a guide to the research evidence on effective probation practice produced by the HM Inspectorate of Probation research team. This provides an excellent introduction to all the key evidence behind principal probation concepts like the Risk-Need-Responsivity model and desistance theory and to the ASPIRE model for quality case supervision against which we inspect. There’s also a summary of the evidence on what drives successful organisational delivery – including what makes for strong leadership, staff engagement and effective service delivery.

My thanks to all of those within the Inspectorate who have been involved in producing these two excellent guides – as well as to the probation staff and service users who commented on initial drafts. It’s been a great collaborative effort. We’ll continue to expand and improve both products over the course of this year and will be publishing a similar guide on effective supervision for staff working in Youth Offending Teams. All feedback is very welcome and should be sent to Liza Durkin, our Head of Effective Practice – liza.durkin@hmiprobation.gov.uk (E-mail address)Feedback on the evidence resource is also very welcome and should be sent to Dr Robin Moore, our Head of Research – robin.moore@hmiprobation.gov.uk (E-mail address)