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Probation officer: Entry requirements

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Major changes are currently taking place to probation services in England and Wales, which will be rolled out during 2014/15. A range of organisations is likely to be involved in the supervision of low-risk offenders. A new public sector organisation called the National Probation Service (NPS) will be in charge of supervising and rehabilitating high-risk offenders. This may affect the career opportunities available in probation services. Check the Ministry of Justice (UK)  website for the latest information on these changes.

In order to undertake probation officer training, entrants must first become a probation services officer (PSO). Vacancies for PSOs are advertised on the websites of individual probation trusts. Once employed as a PSO, there are two routes available to qualify as a probation officer.

Route one is a three-year honours degree in community justice and a Vocational Qualification Diploma in Probation Practice Level 5 (VQ5). To gain access to this route, the Vocational Qualification Diploma in Probation Practice Level 3 (VQ3) must be obtained whilst working as a PSO. Whilst studying for the honours degree, applicants must gain competence for the VQ5. Training is a mixture of academic and practical work. A significant part of the training is the management of a caseload of offenders whilst under the supervision management of a senior probation officer. Academic input is delivered by distance learning, as well as regular workshops.

Route two is the completion of the work-based Graduate Diploma in Community Justice and the VQ5. This route is open to graduates with an honours degree or a joint/combined honours degree that includes a minimum of 50% of one of the following degree subjects:

  • criminology;
  • police studies;
  • community justice;
  • criminal justice.

This route usually takes around 15 months to complete. Selection criteria are determined by local probation trusts in partnership with a designated higher education (HE) provider and focus on the ability to successfully complete the Graduate Diploma within the 15 months.

Qualification does not guarantee a job and candidates will need to apply for probation officer positions as and when they arise.

Pre-entry experience of working with offenders or other vulnerable groups is usually required when applying for PSO jobs. This can be gained through either paid or voluntary work in approved premises, prison visiting services, victim support services, youth offending teams or community payback teams.

In Scotland, probation officers are known as criminal justice social workers. Entry is via a four-year honours degree in social work approved by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) . A two-year postgraduate scheme is available for entrants who already possess a degree in another subject. Candidates should have some experience in social work/care.

If you want to work as a probation officer in Northern Ireland, you must be a qualified social worker. Candidates need to have some experience working with offenders and should apply through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)  for a degree in social work. For more information see:

Candidates need to show evidence of the following:

  • excellent interpersonal skills;
  • the ability to relate to others;
  • teamwork skills;
  • case work and report-writing skills;
  • administrative skills;
  • planning and organisational skills;
  • problem-solving ability;
  • motivation and commitment;
  • resilience;
  • experience of the criminal justice system.

For more information, see work experience and internships and search postgraduate courses.


Further information

Written by Pauline Tait, University of Lincoln
November 2013

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