Sir: I write to echo the concern expressed by your correspondents (letter, 25 September) from the Forensic Psychiatry Service about Home Office proposals to restructure probation service training, and the impact this might have on working relationships between agencies involved in inner London, Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in dealing with mentally disordered offenders. Indeed, this was one of the main points emphasised to the Home Office recently by the Hertfordshire probation committee in its response to the proposals. The broad nature of the current qualification - containing elements of psychology, criminology and law - and its close affinity to social work and related professions have greatly assisted probation officers in their working relationships with other agencies, creating an environment of mutual trust and credibility.
All probation officers are currently required to gain the diploma in social work before starting to practice - which means most spend two years at university or college prior to appointment. Their studies include social policy and administration, human growth and development, working with mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, interviewing and motivation techniques ... all essential skills for dealing with the complex problems and chaotic lifestyles of many offenders, including those with a mental disorder.
The Home Office proposals envisage the creation of a new Qualified Probation Officer Status (QPS) with training largely confined to the workplace, and supplemented by additional support either from an academic institution or private training agency. The QPS could be awarded locally, and without external or academic validation. Because of the small numbers of students involved, there is concern that many universities would no longer find it viable to support probation teaching of this nature, and thus would also retreat from post-qualifying training and probation-related research.
The Home Office has put forward a number of constructive proposals for enhancing probation officer training, but it is vital to ensure the quality and consistency of initial training is maintained. This could be achieved most easily and cost-effectively by building on existing links with higher education, and by continuing to use external academic validation to set an academic benchmark which ensures the high calibre of entrants to the probation service is upheld.
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