Probation officers manage offenders in order to protect the public and reduce the incidence of reoffending. They work with offenders in courts, in the community and in custody to make communities safer.

Probation officers interact with offenders, victims, police and prison service colleagues on a regular basis. They work closely with relevant statutory and voluntary agencies. They may also manage approved residential premises for offenders and ex-prisoners.

In addition, probation officers manage and enforce the conditions of community orders. Community orders are an alternative to a prison sentence. Offenders are required to engage in components such as community payback (unpaid work), offending behaviour programmes and alcohol or drug rehabilitation activities.

Recent changes to probation services in England and Wales have led to the creation of the National Probation Service (NPS), a statutory criminal justice service that supervises high-risk offenders released into the community, and 21 private sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) that manage low and medium-risk offenders. This is of a result of the government's Transforming Rehabilitation reform programme, which aims to bring down reoffending rates while continuing to protect the public.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate criminal justice systems and different arrangements for the provision of probation services. For further information, see:

Responsibilities

Tasks will vary depending on whether you work for the NPS or one of the 21 CRCs. However, activities will typically involve:

  • working with high-risk offenders, including dangerous and prolific offenders (if working for the NPS), or with medium and low-risk offenders (if working for a CRC);
  • providing pre-sentence reports for magistrates' courts and the Crown Court on people charged with an offence, which help magistrates and judges to decide what sentence should be passed;
  • protecting the public by collaborating with other agencies to ensure that Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) are effective;
  • carrying out risk assessments and reviews on offenders in order to protect the public from further possible offending;
  • managing and enforcing community orders made by the courts, which may involve offenders' participation in accredited offending behaviour programmes (usually run by specially trained probation officers), ensuring offenders attend supervision with a probation officer, or ensuring offenders undertake unpaid work that benefits the community (if offenders do not cooperate, the probation officer will arrange their return to court for a further punishment);
  • administering and scoring psychometric tests on offenders attending accredited programmes;
  • motivating and changing offenders' attitudes and behaviour in order to help reduce further offending;
  • providing specialist reports to prison governors and parole review boards that help determine whether a prisoner should be released and, if so, under what conditions, e.g. curfew or tagging order or probation supervision;
  • undertaking meticulous record keeping and review processes;
  • working with prisoners sentenced to 12 months or more in custody during and after their sentence, helping them to reintegrate into the community;
  • liaising with victims of serious crime, e.g. violence or sex offences, to keep them informed about a prisoner's progress in prison; gathering feedback from the victim(s) about the impact of the offence and any fears and concerns about the proposed release of the prisoner;
  • working with other agencies to help local crime reduction and community safety, e.g. police, local authorities, courts, health services, substance misuse services, voluntary agencies and youth offending teams;
  • managing approved premises (formerly called hostels), which provide accommodation for people on bail or probation or offenders on parole;
  • attending court, sometimes to testify about written recommendations in reports.

Salary

  • Entrants to the profession start as probation service officers (PSOs). The salary range for PSOs is £22,039 to £27,373 on the NPS Pay Band 3.
  • Salaries for qualified probation officers range from £29,038 to £36,084 (Band 4).
  • Senior probation officers with relevant skills, experience and qualifications can earn between £35,024 and £39,818 (Band 5).
  • Salaries for experienced managers can rise to in excess of £50,000.

A London Weighting Allowance is added to salaries where applicable. Additional benefits for NPS probation officers include eligibility to join the local government pension scheme.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

The normal working week is 37 hours. Occasional work outside of normal office hours may be required. Holiday entitlement for probation officers in the NPS starts at 25 days per year plus public holidays.

What to expect

  • Probation officers may be office based, but they are expected to travel frequently around the local community within the working day. They may also visit clients in their homes.
  • Probation officers may be based in courts, in prisons or managing approved premises, which provide residential accommodation for offenders and ex-offenders.
  • Self-employment is not an option. However, PSOs and qualified probation officers can obtain temporary or sessional work.
  • Family friendly policies and practices are widely available, such as paid maternity and paternity leave and flexible working practices. Part-time work and job-share opportunities are available.
  • There are currently more women than men working in probation in all grades other than management, where the gender split is roughly equal.
  • In Scotland, criminal justice social workers carry out the work done by probation officers in England. They are employed by local authority social work departments who have responsibility for offenders.
  • In Northern Ireland, probation officers are qualified social workers employed by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI).

Qualifications

In order to qualify as a probation officer, you need to successfully complete probation officer training via the Professional Qualification in Probation.

In order to apply, you need:

  • relevant experience of working with challenging behaviour;
  • a QCF Level 5 qualification or above (for example, an honours degree, foundation degree/diploma of higher education (DipHE) or vocational qualification or higher apprenticeship level 5);
  • four knowledge modules at Level 5 in the community justice system, crime and criminal behaviour, penal policy, and the rehabilitation of offenders.

If your degree does not cover the four knowledge modules needed to apply for probation training, you will have the opportunity to undertake the required modules by distance learning prior to application.

Existing probation officers with a nationally recognised probation officer qualification such as the PQF Graduate Diploma or Community Justice Degree integrated with a Level 5 Diploma in Probation Practice, Diploma in Probation Practice, Diploma in Social Work (Probation Option) or CQSW (Probation Option) are eligible to apply for probation officer posts.

Entry-level probation service officer (PSO) posts are advertised locally by the 21 private sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) and the NPS Divisions. PSOs work with lower-risk offenders and train towards a relevant Level 3 qualification, such as the Diploma in Probation Practice, which also provides access to a Level 5 qualification, which in turn provides eligibility to apply for the Professional Qualification in Probation.

For more information, see Skills for Justice: Community Justice Learning. Recruitment information is available on Train to be a Probation Officer.

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 or 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:

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to relate to others;
  • the ability to persuade and influence others;
  • teamwork and collaboration skills;
  • a caring attitude;
  • case work and report-writing skills;
  • planning and organisational skills;
  • effective decision-making skills and problem-solving ability;
  • motivation and commitment;
  • resilience;
  • good judgement and the ability to think on your feet;
  • an understanding and appreciation of equal opportunities and anti-discriminatory practice.

Applicants are expected to have knowledge and understanding of the work of the criminal justice system and the probation service.

Work experience

Experience of working with challenging behaviour is essential. The quality of the experience is more important than the quantity and can be gained through either paid or voluntary work in a range of settings, including:

  • approved premises;
  • prison visiting services;
  • victim support services;
  • youth offending teams;
  • community payback teams;
  • outside of the community justice system.

Employers

In England and Wales, most probation officers are employed by the National Probation Service (NPS). There are also opportunities with the 21 private sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) that manage low and medium-risk offenders and who largely employ probation service officers (PSOs).

The NPS works with around 30,000 offenders a year, supporting their rehabilitation while protecting the public. It works in partnership with the CRCs, courts, police and with private and voluntary sector partners in order to manage offenders safely and effectively.

In Scotland, local authority social work departments have responsibility for probation work (known as criminal justice social work) and recruit qualified social workers, known as criminal justice social workers.

In Northern Ireland, probation work is carried out by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI). The PBNI employs more than 350 people, around half of whom are probation officers across Northern Ireland.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies also advertise vacancies, see:

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Professional development

Trainees working towards the Professional Qualification in Probation are employed as probation services officers (PSOs) and receive a salary at Band 3 on the NPS pay scale. All training costs are covered.

Training includes study for a QCF Level 6 Community Justice Learning qualification (equivalent to the final year of an honours degree), integrated with a vocational qualification and supervised work experience covering high-risk offenders. The training has previously taken 15 months and is currently under review.

Once qualified, NPS probation officers are supported by the National Offender Management Service's human resources learning and development team, which delivers professional skills training for the NPS. In addition, all NPS staff have access to Civil Service Learning, which provides a range of courses and resources for developing skills common to all UK civil servants.

The 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) are responsible for the training and development of their probation staff, and training opportunities will vary depending on the company.

With experience and relevant training, it may be possible to specialise in a particular area of probation work, such as working with sex offenders or working in court.

Some probation officers take advantage of secondments to spend time working for other agencies, such as in youth offending teams or prisons. Training for those who are thinking of becoming managers may also be available.

Career prospects

Opportunities for career development may depend to some extent on whether you have trained to work in the NPS, a statutory criminal justice service that supervises high-risk offenders released into the community, or for one of the 21 private sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) that manage low and medium-risk offenders.

Probation officers with several years' experience can apply for promotion to the role of senior probation officer. A senior probation officer manages a team of probation officers and is responsible for their performance. Other duties are likely to include risk management, meeting targets and working with other agencies such as the police and prison service.

Promotion beyond main grade often involves moving to a managerial level rather than working with offenders and is dependent on experience and ability. Probation area managers, for example, are responsible for the probation service in a designated area and are responsible for a team of senior probation officers. They have little or no contact with offenders and are typically involved in the management of risk to the public.

There are, however, many opportunities to move sideways and to specialise in different areas of probation work, such as:

  • management of approved premises - involves providing accommodation for people on bail, people on probation who have problems such as alcoholism or drug addiction, or offenders released on licence from prison pending the end of their sentence;
  • prison work - involves working alongside prison officers and management to help prisoners return to society, often in offender management units;
  • approved programme units - involves working alongside colleagues in other professions offering interactive group work for serving offenders;
  • specialist case management teams - involves working in areas such as drug treatment and testing orders, public protection or sex offending.

Once a probation officer has gained experience, there is also the opportunity to work as an accredited programme tutor and a practice development assessor, supervising trainees.