Key findings

  • Probation service users are more likely to be unemployed, have poor basic skills (literacy, numeracy) and inadequate educational attainment and attendance compared to the general population.
  • Employability is a key predictor of the likelihood of reoffending and an important target for intervention to achieve positive outcomes. Those who engage in prison/probation education, training or employment (ETE) activities are more likely to be employed and less likely to reoffend than those who have not.
  • Chaotic lifestyles, substance misuse, mental health issues, and poor social functioning are major barriers to engaging in ETE interventions.
  • Those staff who deploy the core correctional skills of relationship building, pro-social modelling, problem-solving, motivational interviewing, and cognitive-behavioural skills have more success in engaging their clients with ETE interventions.


ETE has long been recognised as a central plank in rehabilitation and desistance. Probation services in England and Wales offer, or can access, a variety of ETE interventions often involving the following:

  • work readiness training such as the ‘basic skills’ of numeracy and literacy, basic IT and internet skills, problem solving, and critical thinking, or ‘soft skills’ such as team working, emotional literacy, or active listening
  • job search training and support, such as CV writing, interview preparation and job searching
  • vocational education and training
  • job placement or transitional work, paid or unpaid
  • job coaches.

Key statistics are as follows:

  • of those supervised in the community on 30 June 2018 with a completed OASys (Offender Assessment System), 48 per cent of women and 43 per cent of men had ETE identified as an offending-related need
  • in a 2018 sample, 42 per cent of probation service users with an ETE need reoffended within a year, compared to 24 percent of those without an identified ETE need
  • of those released from custody in 2018, only 17 per cent were in P45 employment (which excludes some low-paid employment and other types, such as self-employment) a year later
  • in a 2016 survey, 50 per cent of employers said that they would not consider employing an ex-offender, with 45 per cent worrying that ex-offenders may be unreliable.

Summary of the evidence

ETE interventions

A 2020 evidence review examined 33 interventions across a range of community and custodial settings. The researchers found that, on average, ETE interventions were associated with nine percent fewer participants reoffending compared to those who did not take part.

Barriers to engagement

Research has identified the following major barriers to taking up ETE opportunities amongst service users:

  • poor mental health
  • lack of motivation
  • chaotic lifestyles
  • lack of work experience
  • employers’ attitudes
  • inability to adapt to a structured environment
  • poor social skills
  • concerns about the impact on benefits
  • scepticism amongst some probation staff themselves towards what can be achieved.


As with all aspects of probation service delivery, those staff who deploy core correctional skills (for example, relationship building, pro-social modelling, problem-solving and motivational interviewing) have more success in engaging their clients with ETE interventions.

Research into former prisoners’ outcomes in the community found that undertaking any form of prison learning, regardless of qualification, significantly reduced reoffending on release. Encouraging any form of participation in learning should be a primary goal for those working with prisoners and probation service users.

Service user involvement

Our research on methods of service user involvement (SUI) in the review and development of probation services found that SUI could help individuals develop work-related skills, such as presenting or mentoring. Having a criminal record can be a barrier to gaining paid or even voluntary work, and one of the key aspects of SUI raised frequently by participants was that it could provide professional skills which could ultimately lead to employment. SUI opportunities could be vital in developing skills transferable to a wider number of roles, and the time and energy which they were giving to the SUI work provided evidence of both their capabilities and their hard-working, committed attitudes.

Ban the box

The need to declare a criminal conviction in job application forms or at interview is an important barrier to employment for those on probation, both through discouraging job seeking and through discrimination by employers. The Unlock campaign group has convinced many employers to ‘ban the box’ – to remove unnecessary criminal record requests from the job application process. This is a welcome initiative to remove stigma and increase ETE opportunities. However, US research suggests that legislation to ban the box has increased racial discrimination in hiring as some employers have used stereotypes as a proxy indicator as to who might have a criminal record. Attention thus needs to be given to implementation and any unintended consequences.

The video below originally ran as an interactive film as part of the ‘ban the box’ campaign.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

Inspection data

In our core adult inspection programme, there are questions related to addressing ETE, where it is identified as an offending-related factor, at both the planning and intervention stages. Data from our 2018/2019 inspections is set out in the figure below – an ETE need had been identified in about one in ten (11 per cent) of the cases.

Was there sufficient planning relation to ETE? 70%. Were sufficient services delivered in relation to ETE? 55%.

Conversely, employment was considered an important strength/protective factor for the individual service user in just over one quarter (28 per cent) of the cases. In 71 per cent of these cases, the delivered services sufficiently built upon this strength.

Key references

Agan, A. and Starr, S. (2018). ‘Ban the Box, Criminal Records, and Racial Discrimination: A Field Experiment’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(1), pp.191–235.

Fox, C., Harrison, J., Hothersall, G. and Smith, A. (2020). Community and custody delivered vocational training and employment programmes. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University.

HM Inspectorate of Probation (2019). The availability and delivery of interventions (probation services).  Manchester: HM Inspectorate of Probation. (PDF, 1 MB)

HM Inspectorate of Probation (2019). Service user involvement in the review and improvement of probation services.  Manchester: HM Inspectorate of Probation. (PDF, 509 kB)

Wood, M., Cattell, J., Hales, G., Lord, C., Kenny, T. and Capes, T. (2015). Re-offending by offenders on Community Orders: Results from the Offender Management Community Cohort Study. London: Ministry of Justice.

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Last updated: 02 February 2021