A new path to becoming a probation officer

Work with Offenders looks at new government plans to outsource probation training

2021 is set to be a big year for probation and everyone that works in it. As regular readers will know, the Ministry of Justice has finally abandoned its plan to part-privatise the probation service under its Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) programme and the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) will be wound up in June this year with all offender management responsibilities and most interventions being taken over by the public sector National Probation Service (NPS).

One of the main criticisms of both the NPS and the CRCs in the almost six years for which TR has been in place has been chronic understaffing with many probation officers having unworkable caseloads. The MoJ acknowledged this issue back in July last year when it launched a new Probation Workforce Strategy with the target to get a thousand additional probation officers in training by March 2021.

The PQiP

Almost everyone who becomes a probation officer starts off as a Probation Services Officer (PSO) learning on the job and studying to achieve the Professional Qualification in Probation (PQiP). This approach, in practice the equivalent of a probation apprenticeship, combines theory with practice with time both in the classroom and working directly with offenders. The PQiP programme takes 15 months to complete for people who have a level 5 (or equivalent) qualification that included modules relating to criminal justice and the rehabilitation of offenders. For people without that qualification, the PQiP takes 21 months to complete. On completion, people not only gain a Level 5 vocational qualification diploma in Probation Practice, but an honours degree as well.

New training providers 

Yesterday (4 January), the MoJ showed its ongoing commitment to increasing the number of probation officers. It published a procurement notice asking for bidders to “develop, accredit, deliver and award” the PQiP. The notice shares the information that the NPS is increasing trainee recruitment (from c.600 to 1200-1500 annually) in order to qualify probation officers at the scale and pace needed to match the Criminal Justice System demand.

There are six separate contracts (“Lots”) with a value of between £22 million and £38 million each separated into distinct geographical areas which are coterminous with the 12 newly formed NPS regions (eleven in England and one covering the whole of Wales). The contracts are designed to run for seven years from July 2021 onwards.

Initially, contract winners will deliver the PQiP in its current form, but one of the successful bidders will also be appointed as the “Lead Designer” of a new curriculum framework. There are no details of the new curriculum in the contract notice although there is a commitment that the qualification will continue to be at level 6 (degree level) in line with the government’s strategic priority of professionalising the probation workforce. This, and the additional information provided in the contract notice – some of which is detailed below – suggests that the new qualification will continue to be a blended model with most teaching done via distance learning.

Successful bidders will qualify Learners joining the NPS during 3 academic years, with an option to extend to cover those learners joining in a fourth academic year starting from the October 2021 academic year. Up to 4 cohorts will be admitted in each academic year on a quarterly basis and there will be a run off period following the final intake in 2024 (or 2025 if contracts are extended) to enable the cohorts to qualify.

Clearly the MoJ plans have been somewhat delayed owing both to the late decision to abandon Transforming Rehabilitation and the, understandable, impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Organisations looking to bid to deliver the PQiP must return their bids by 3 February and the procurement is clearly going to be expedited – in technical terms it is an “Open Procedure” governed by the “Light Touch Regime” under Section 7 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015.

Work with offenders will keep you up-to-date with the results of this procurement competition when they are announced.