Wrong move for probation training

November 3, 1995

The Home Office's decision to remove probation training from higher education is indeed a regrettable one (THES, October 6). It cannot but have the effect of diminishing the status and influence of probation officers within the criminal justice system. It implies, wrongly, that such officers do not need theoretical knowledge of offending behaviour or a deep understanding of how social responses to crime originate and of how they can be improved.

Nonetheless, the way probation service interest groups, the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work and higher education have dealt with Home Office criticisms has been confusing and misguided. The way the Home Office attacked the place of probation training within the Diploma in Social Work and its place in higher education made it difficult for the interest groups to do anything else but defend both simultaneously. But these should always have been understood as separate issues.

There has been a very strong case for removing probation training from social work training (unless it becomes a substantial specialism within it). There is no case at all for removing it from higher education. Ergo, there is, as I have been arguing since 1991, a case for a separate probation qualification, an argument which has belatedly been taken up by some key individuals in the debate, and it is on this alone that hope for the future can be pinned.

The case against the involvement of probation training in social work is based on the limitations of the model of social work that underpins the DipSW, and on the indifference of CCETSW to criticism of its performance in respect of probation. Latterly, under duress, it has responded more positively, but a lot of what is taught on DipSW courses is still not relevant to probation officers, and distorts understanding of what progressive practice in criminal justice could involve.

There is a lot of relevant criminological knowledge which is not taught at all, or not taught in sufficient depth. Improvements have taken place on some DipSW courses but these have been due to the efforts of forward-looking individuals, and despite the framework rather than because of it.

The second case against the present training arrangements stems from the kind of organisation that the Probation Service has become. Unless one endlessly stretches the meaning of "social work" to connote something more than the provision of skilled help/empowerment opportunities to individuals, the Probation Service has not been a pure "social work" organisation for more than a decade.

There have been many improvements in its practice over this period, the inspiration for which has come far more from criminological and psychological thinking than from the blinkered and moribund world of generic social work. Such good things as social work training has contributed in respect of anti-racism and equal opportunities hardly redeem its failure to equip probation officers with a critical understanding of all the options and strategies open to the service in an increasingly oppressive penal system.

The interest groups have been quite right to see the debate on probation training as a battle for the soul of the Probation Service, but they have done it no favours by seeking to preserve the social work ethos. Social work thinking is the last place one should look for ideas which might help to resist the correctional direction in which the Home Office is seeking to push the service. Indeed, under CCETSW (and its agencies), the social work ethos itself is drifting in a mechanistic, managerial, regulatory - in essence, correctional - direction.

The link with universities gives an impression of intellectual integrity in social work training that is increasingly undeserved. It has been one of the weaknesses of the vice chancellors' position in the probation training debate that they seem not to have realised that the intellectual requirements of the DipSW are now so low that the case for the continued involvement of higher education is being seriously weakened.

But there is a solution. The intellectual standards of criminology teaching in British universities are extraordinarily high, and it is on these courses that the academic components of a new specialised qualification for probation officers should be modelled. It will, I admit, be organisationally difficult to set such courses in place, but faced with the relentlessly vocational alternative now being pursued by the Home Office, it is worth campaigning for this, no matter how long it takes.

As far as crime control in the 1990s is concerned, the language and ethos of social work is as passe as the evangelistic ethos of the early police court missionaries in the 1930s. There is already much going on in British universities which could help the service resist the pressures which the Home Office is putting on it, and evolve a new identity - neither "social work" nor "correctionalism" but "community justice" - worthy of the challenges of the 21st century.

Mike Nellis is a lecturer in probation studies at the University of Birmingham.

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