According to Knight & White (2001) the Diploma in Probation Studies requires the trainee to demonstrate an “ability to critically reflect on practice, consider the rationale for their activities and analyse alternative perspectives and approaches.” After twenty two months of training to be a Probation Officer the end is in sight, yet can I claim to have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to justify my probable qualification as a newly qualified Officer? Has the combination of academia, professional practice and NVQ’s prepared me for an environment where I can no longer run to my Practice Development Assessor’s office when I am unable to make sense of something? To what extent have I developed as an individual over the traineeship? How have my own values and beliefs been affected by the over riding values of the organisation? These are all prominent questions which I will endeavour to address throughout the course of this final essay.

In order to understand the process of learning throughout this traineeship it is useful to refer to the work of Kolb (1971) and his ‘learning cycle.’ For Kolb learning is a cyclical process and involves four key stages, which for the purposes of this unit are best described by Fielding (1994)…

  1. Sensing/feeling
  2. Watching/reflecting
  3. Thinking
  4. Doing

An essential part of Probation training is based on the idea that learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Yet perhaps one of the key phrases used throughout training, that of ‘reflection,’ plays a crucial role in that we do not simply learn from our experiences, but moreover we learn from reflecting on our experiences (Boreham 1987). It can on this basis be argued that without reflecting upon our experiences students, such as myself, are in danger of continuing to make the same mistakes. For example upon conducting an induction for an individual who has been released from prison I forgot to photocopy the licence. When reflecting upon the mistake made I am able to change my behaviour and based upon previous experiences, remember to photocopy licences in future situations.

The purpose of this final essay therefore is simply to chart my journey through the ‘swampy lowlands of practice’ (Schon 1983). Upon this voyage I will demonstrate how I have continued to move through Kolb’s cycle of learning not in one singular movement (stage one at the commencement of the traineeship and stage four at the end), but continuously. Ultimately my movement is more through a spiral of learning cycles rather than a single cycle.

This account will be structured under four distinct, yet cyclical levels of enquiry.

  1. Knowledge/Theory
  2. Practice
  3. Integrating theory and practice
  4. Continuing Professional Development

It is my argument that during the first phase of learning the trainee is permanently building a knowledge base in relation to policy, practice and procedures. It is not until the commencement of the second year that the trainee focuses more on aspects of practice and integrating theory into practice. One can only assume that this occurrence is due to the increasing confidence and ability of the trainee to work in a Probation environment.


Prior to taking up the post of ‘Trainee Probation Officer’ I had experience in both a field and educational setting which related to working within the Criminal Justice System. Academically I had completed a degree in Criminology, which amongst other things taught me the changing history and purpose of the Probation Service. I saw this academic knowledge to be one of my strengths for the traineeship, and in particular the academic side of the learning. Having two of my lecturers as previous PO’s themselves, one having served over thirty years, also offered an insight into the workings of the Service. In terms of experience I had worked for a voluntary organisation (SOVA-Supporting Others through Voluntary Action)) over a six month period following the completion of my degree. Duties involved assisting in the carrying out reparation orders with youths who had received such sentences from the Courts. Unlike some other TPO’s who have previously been PSO’s of held relevant positions, I felt that my lack of experience could be perceived to be one of my weaknesses.

Indeed these three arenas of knowledge and experience provided me with not simply a basic knowledge of the criminal justice system (CJS) and its agencies, but also with a set of beliefs and values. Yet these life experiences have explicitly shaped and directed my path into the National Probation Service. Applying to the organisation was heavily influenced by my university lecturers, who felt I had the necessary qualities and ability to succeed in this type of environment. Likewise the existence of previous convictions did not deter me from the type of work I wanted to pursue. 

The question one must ask is whether such knowledge gained prior to the commencement of the traineeship proved to be advantageous, as according to Trotter (1999 Pp.6) ‘workers are influenced by accumulated life experience, sometimes referred to as practice wisdom.’  On the one hand one would have to say no – I, like many of my new colleagues, had no experience of Probation work. If the terms ‘Effective Practice,’ ‘Enforcement’ and ‘National Standards’ had been directed at me on my first day in the office I would have stared blankly back – and then continued to rearrange pens upon my new desk. My one piece of knowledge that I transferred from university studies was that the Probation Service advised assisted and befriended offenders….and even this block of knowledge proved to be a poor and inaccurate piece of information to retain. Of course the danger with newly introduced trainees is the stereotypical view that we are all young, white, middle class graduates (rather like a ‘What Works’ sample group) who do not have a clue about the real world. Indeed such views were clearly expressed by many of my new found work colleagues, and so issues of ADP were therefore evident in the workplace before I had even stepped foot into an interview room.

I found the initial pace of phase one to be fairly slow and cumbersome – afterall the first few months literally consisted of attending a few training events, printing off introductory lecture notes and supervising one low risk case. Despite the slow pace I was able to begin to facilitate my own learning through the organisation of events that included shadowing other Probation Officers and discussing what they had to do in order to meet the expectations of their post. At this point I was able to increase my knowledge by simply watching others, and reflecting upon their actions. This was the primary movement within Kolb’s learning cycle – I was beginning not only to demonstrate a move from stages one to three, but an early form of reflective practice. Indeed it could be argued that within the first few months of the traineeship I had moved successfully through all four stages of the cycle, but only on a basic level.

During one of the early academic modules we were encouraged to discover our preferred style of learning. According to Honey and Mumford (1986) there are four distinct learning styles.  Activists are enthusiastic about new ideas but tend to get bored quickly. They also tend to act first and consider the implications later. Reflectors on the other hand like to stand back and look at a situation from different perspectives. Furthermore they like to think about data before coming to any conclusions, and will listen to others views before offering their own. Thirdly theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex and sound theories. They are perfectionists who think through problems step by step, and are detached and analytical as opposed to subjective or emotive. Lastly there are pragmatists who are keen to try things out and adapt to immediate circumstances. They are also practical, down to earth and impatient.

Upon completion of a ‘learning styles questionnaire’ I found myself to be a pragmatist in the early stages of the traineeship, made distinct by my impatience to have more cases and constantly wanting to try new things out. However as the traineeship developed I have found that my learning styles have constantly shifted. Upon completing the questionnaire mid way through my second year I found that I had shifted to adopt more of a ‘reflective learning style,’ a shift I put down to being a product of my current learning environment and the demands made upon me. 

In conjunction with analysing my own learning style I felt that it maybe useful to identify the learning style of my PDA, afterall according to Fielding (1994) ‘Learning may suffer where there is a marked mismatch between the style of learning and approach by the teacher.’ I concluded that my PDA’s teaching style was that of a reflector in that she did like to stand back and look at situations from various perspectives and listen to views before offering her own. It is my view that this type of learning/teaching style has remained constant with my PDA throughout the duration of the traineeship, whilst my own learning style has changed and adapted over the time period to include any one style at any one time. Despite such differences it has been argued (Kolb 1984) that a mismatch between learning styles can actually have long term benefits….

“The aim is to make the person self reviewing and self directed…there the student is taught to experience the tension and conflict among these orientations, for it is from these tensions that creativity springs.”

It is my firm belief that in having a PDA that maintains her teaching style throughout, whilst mine adapts and changes over time, has enabled me to develop a more holistic awareness of practice issues. This is largely demonstrated through the completions of KLO’s in the first year and NVQ’s in the second year. Yet as we move towards a conclusion it would seem that my current learning style reflects that of my PDA’s – and so learning at this level comes with a greater mutual understanding between the two parties.

Essentially phase one allowed me to begin to develop a core knowledge of the Probation Service, including its purpose, expectations and necessary skills for the practitioner. In the academic module ‘Foundation Skills and Methods’ we were required to produce a critical analysis of an interview conducted with an offender. As part of the assessment the interview would be video recorded and played back by the interviewer, who would then write critically about the experience. This exercise was effectively a piece of reflective practice that encapsulated the learning cycle  in that the interview was completed (stage 1), reflectively observed by myself (stage 2), thought about critically (stage 3) and finally the essay recorded the actions that would be changed in future situations (stage 4). In fact I found this module to be most helpful not only in allowing me to observe myself in an interview setting and being able to critically identify personal strengths and weaknesses, but to also identify the values I have that may influence aspects of my practice.

Values and ethics’, a further module within phase one, could be described as comprising of two concepts that cannot be clearly defined. I found it difficult to identify my value base within a Probation concept, and even found myself demonstrating values that the Probation Service would find desirable, when in fact there were other values that existed which the Service would find less desirable. Perhaps the key question I asked myself throughout this module was how I would manage certain values that may conflict with organisational values. As we grow and develop we are all exposed to media representations of individuals and groups. In the context of Probation practice those who commit offences of domestic violence and sex offences are targeted by the media. From these representations emanate negative views of these people (stereotypical views lets say), yet the conflict occurs when as P.O’s we are expected to deal with these very people, whilst working under a framework of ADP and AOP.  The values of the NPS can be drawn from A New Choreography (2001 Pp.8) and include….

  • Victim awareness and empathy
  • Importance of Public Protection
  • Law Enforcement
  • Rehabilitation
  • Empiricism
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Openness and transparency
  • Responding and learning to work positively with difference

Acknowledging, understanding and to a degree accepting values of diversity and anti discrimination were key aspects of the traineeship. This was shaped by the Probation statement that ‘Inclusiveness, equality and fairness are required to ensure simple justice…The NPS will weave those values and expectations into its development and planning.’ I now feel comfortable in retaining both my own values and those of the organisations. However the key discrepancy between such values remains in the rehabilitation versus enforcement debate. The values and beliefs I brought to the service were predominantly rehabilitative in nature (advise, assist, befriend) yet throughout this traineeship I have had to acknowledge the main purpose of the NPS to be that of enforcement. Despite the above values including both enforcement and rehabilitation there is no question as to which ideal holds more weight. “We are a law enforcement agency. Its what we are, its what we do” (Paul Boetang 2001). I have managed to explore this issue through a number of debates within academic modules, culminating in essays focusing on the debate in the ‘Legal and Policy Framework’ module and the ‘Integrative Study.’

In order to develop critical reflective capabilities it was important for me to re-emphasise, understand and make sense of my experiences to date. At this point of the traineeship I was thinking about and reviewing previous episodes of practice (reflection on action) in order to facilitate a self critique and an evaluation of my current understanding of the relevant issues. Despite what I perceived to be ‘cycles of learning’ I actually felt at this point like a mechanical trainee, a minion pushed and prodded by policy, procedure and service directives…Here’s what you need to do….get on with it!. This was exemplified by the introduction of practice techniques including’ motivational interviewing,’ solution focused therapy and pro-social modelling in the field of online learning. This was not demonstrated for us to observe and reflect upon, but rather we were directed to read about it and incorporate it into our own practice. It would not be inconceivable to admit that at this stage ones knowledge of multiple techniques/approaches to offending behaviours were, on a knowledge base, significantly increasing. However applying theory to practice within the first year of the course remained largely non existent. Instead we were passed the knowledge and not really told what to do with it. My own application of knowledge to practice proved problematic in that I felt I was being equipped with the tools and materials to build a house, but there were no instructions given in how to build it!

When reflecting back upon phase one I feel that this time was used to practice and familiarise myself with the reflective process. It was also a time to continuously build primary knowledge about the purpose and expectations of the Probation Service and the specific legislation, policies and procedures relevant to the work undertaken. However moving into the second year of the traineeship (within a different team) offered the chance in not only building and developing ones knowledge (B103), but also in applying it to situations more confidently, effectively and efficiently.


My knowledge has continued to increase over the two years of training, yet for me my practice only began to really develop in the second year of my training. During the two years of training I have developed a number of practice related skills in two very different environments. In the first year I was placed in a Community Rehabilitation Order (CRO) team, whereas in the second year I was moved to a Resettlement team. This effectively offered me two very different opportunities in developing my own professional practice, whilst at the same time working with different teams and in different environments. The types of work based products include

  • Supervision of CRO’s and ACR/DCR licences
  • PSR/Parole reports/DCR Reports/Recalls/Breaches
  • Supervision Plans/review Plans
  • Risk assessments/MAPPP meetings
  • Two week court placement – Leeds Magistrates
  • Completion of ETS tutor training and delivery of 6 sessions.
  • Interagency contact – Housing/Prisons/Police/Drug Agencies/Hostels/Social Services/Courts/Victim Offender Unit.

Perhaps the commencement of me giving more attention to my own practice was that of programmes training for ETS. Indeed this was the first opportunity for me to learn a specific way of delivering to and dealing with offenders. This style of working was very new to me, and to say I was not an immediate fan is an understatement. However since using the taught style of delivery within six programmes sessions I have only recently began to appreciate how useful it now is in one to one situations. An example of this is my use of ETS material in one to one sessions. This gave way to increased training sessions that offer varying techniques in working with offenders, including Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick (1991) and Solution Focused Therapy. However cognitive behaviourism has become synonymous with effective practice. The need for evidence based practice has meant that there is little room to stray away from this approach unless one is confident of ones ability to demonstrate a professional justification through reference to theory. The implication of the managerialist culture is the Home Office’s demand for ‘evidence based practice as a means of justifying the Service’s existence and producing the intended results.’ (Chapman & Hough 1998). Upon critical examination it would seem that this ‘one size fits all’ approach (Gorman 2001) is failing to recognise and work with difference. An essay I completed in a module entitled ‘Understanding Service Providers and Social Users’ focused on the role of female clients within a Probation environment. I discovered that the What Works evidence based practice did not deliver the same effective services to female clients, largely due to the fact that What Works studies were based on experimental male groups.

On a legislative level there have been training sessions that have not so much influenced my practice, but more over directed it. In the middle of the second year, and having just got to grips with the requirements of National Standards and Resettlement procedures, a new Criminal Justice Act (2003) came into force. A two day training event was organised for all staff and I found it extremely heavy going in terms of taking it all in. Nevertheless I am currently riding the crest of the new CJA 2003 wave and am confident that I can develop a comprehensive understanding of the new procedures and expectations associated with the Act. Further training events have been held in domestic violence, self defence, risk, and child protection. These have introduced other types of legislation that exist and my awareness of legislation surrounding Probation practice has dramatically increased.

The second year of this traineeship has given way to numerous training events which I have found to be largely beneficial. However perhaps the most rewarding training sessions for myself have been the ones held on report writing, which include SSR, PSR and Parole report gatherings. Upon entering phase two I had not written a single report – which on reflection I see to be a weakness of this training. As I have stated phase one was somewhat slow and cumbersome, and so it would have made sense to begin writing reports within my first year. Getting to grips with report writing is something I found to be difficult, and when looking back on some of my earlier reports I could certainly be highly critical of their contents and style. I am now at a stage where I feel I have adopted a style of report writing, and this is reflected in the recent PSR and parole reports I have completed. The sheer variety of reports within my current team has meant that I have had to learn and develop quickly, yet at a time when I can almost see the finish line I feel that I will continue to develop my report style over the coming months.

A further element of developing my practice has fallen within the realms of risk assessment. According to The New Choreography (2001)….

“To be effective, Probation staff must therefore be able to differentiate individual offenders, their crimes and their victims in order to take the steps necessary for greater public protection and to identify and target offenders into the programmes most likely to reduce the risk of re-offending.”

Risk and public protection are at the forefront of the Probation Service’s work, which have emulated the words of Kemshall (1996) who stated that “risk assessment and effective risk management are likely to become the main preoccupations of the Probation Service.” Throughout the traineeship I have been able to develop a greater understanding of the OASys system and risk management tools, yet this has greatly developed within the second year. This system is a key element of evidence based practice, providing a common framework for assessing offenders and matching them to appropriate interventions.  It is my belief that this tool allows me to make defensible decisions surrounding the issue of risk, which as a trainee is vital in maintaining a growing professionalism and skill in assessment and managing risk. I have worked within most elements of risk (including the co-working of high risk cases) and this skill and knowledge has been well documented in the Risk Assessment units of the NVQ.

Integrating Theory and Practice

Prior to the traineeship I would have said that practice and theory were two completely different areas that were not explicitly linked. In my experience previous academic qualifications have neither informed my approach to practice nor had been recognised in previous employment circles. Throughout the first year of the traineeship I began to show a basic understanding as to the existence of links between theory and practice, predominantly through the production of KLO’s. However it was not until the beginning of the second year that I was able to appreciate and establish concrete links between theory and practice, primarily through the production of 12 NVQ units, and the completion of an Integrative study that required the candidate to demonstrate how theory was integrated into practice. Indeed it was the production of the Integrative study that allowed me to grasp the real concept of integration – I could reflect on practice in say a programmes environment and say ‘I used pro-social modelling at that point’ or look towards an interview setting and identify the use of motivational interviewing to enable MM to attend his ASRO programme. Despite my enjoyment of producing NVQ’s and the skills which I gained I am also somewhat critical of the structure of the NVQ.

Numerous academics have offered criticism of the NVQ, and having completed the process I am in a position to critically reflect on their views and offer my own opinion. According to McGowan (2002) the NVQ is ‘colour blind’ in that it uses the requirements to apply the principles of equality, diversity and ADP as ‘tokenistic statements.’ On reflection I feel that there is some justification in this view – in my initial units I simply added a chunk on information relating to ADP issues at the end of my RPJ’s. This tokenistic approach was picked up on by my PDA and we developed strategies to incorporate ADP throughout the main body of work. Secondly it can be said that over the past decade the changes to the structure of Probation training have been immense, which McGowan states is a product of managerialism. “There can be no doubt that the qualification has been tailor made with a view to delivering the effective practice agenda. For some people (Knight 2002) the NVQ brings the practice of standards down to the bare minimum necessary for competency. However the quote that best characterises my experiences of NVQ is that of Knight’s view that NVQ is preoccupied with the ‘pedantic need to check every detail, and can therefore miss the holistic and rounded assessment that is required to ensure that the professional role is being fulfilled.’ This is certainly true and on many occasions my PDA has been ‘bogged down’ with issues of anonymisation when in fact this time could have been spent more productively.

Upon reflection I can quite honestly state that the production of NVQ’s was the key element in synthesising the knowledge gained from academic subjects with the gaining of experience and skills from practice. This is demonstrated in all of the RPJ’s I have produced.

Continuing Professional Development

This section does not mark the completion of the traineeship, or in fact my learning. If a round the world cruise represented my career and subsequent learning within the Probation Service, then I would have left England in October 2003 and will be docking at Ireland in October 2005 (reminiscent of the Titanic’s journey to America – although that sank)!! Essentially the idea of CPD is, according to Reid & Barrington (1994)…..

“To ensure the endless raising of standards in an era of boundless change”

Halfway through the second year a module titled ‘Continuing Professional Development’ was introduced. This module sets the trend for not only the remainder of this traineeship, but for my time as a newly qualified officer and perhaps even beyond those years. Having yet to complete the traineeship it is fair to say that I will further develop as an officer and as an individual before I gain my new status as a newly qualified officer.

There are key principles of CPD which according to Thompson (2001) are…

  1. Professional development is a continuous process that applies through a practitioners working life. It is impossible to do all of ones learning at the start of a career and spend the rest of your work life using what you’ve initially learned. Since commencing the traineeship I have developed new skills and acquired a vast amount of knowledge, largely through structured training and the positive relationships built with colleagues and a network of associates that run through other CJS agencies.  I can however acknowledge that these inter related process will continue well after I manage to qualify.
  2. The individual is responsible for continuing and maintaining their own development. Within the traineeship I have discovered that there is indeed a lot of responsibility given to the individual. It is due to this responsibility that I have completed this NVQ qualification earlier – and one of my primary reasons for such an action is to give myself more time to develop in areas of practice over the summer months, particularly report writing.
  3. Individuals should decide for themselves their learning needs and how to fulfil them – there is no ‘right way’ for this type of development. I have discovered that I have indeed chosen my own learning needs, I have the ability to say in what areas I feel I am weak and need to develop, and conversely those areas that I feel I am competent in.
  4. CPD should reflect the needs of the employers and the clients, as well as the practitioner’s individual goals. It is my belief that this is a key node of thought for all trainees. Whilst I am fully aware that completing this traineeship will yield satisfaction for my own goals and desires (whilst at the same time maintaining my own health and well being – balancing work with other factors important in my life), I am only too aware that my employers desire capable and competent Probation Officers, as do the offenders with which I deal.
  5. Learning is most effective when it is acknowledged as an integral part of all work activities – rather than an additional burden. Throughout the traineeship I have felt that all of my learning events have been heavily linked to Probation practice, and learning is the most effective way of keeping abreast of the ever changing Probation Service. I feel that upon qualification I will perhaps have less time in attending further learning opportunities due to the level of work placed upon Officers. However I will strive to continue learning and developing as both a person and a practitioner.

This area is crucial in terms not only of reflecting upon my professional development in terms of the traineeship. I believe that this essay demonstrates the degree in which I have developed over the two year period. It is however also important to acknowledge that fact that I will continue to develop, and that I can identify areas in which I feel I still have areas within which I can improve and develop. In conclusion I would say that the journey has only just begun – and the importance of continued development cannot be overstated.

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