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Probation Staff Supervision: Valuing Me Time in Congested Spaces

Research 15 March 2021

The Probation Journal has published the following research about probation staff supervision from our Research and Policy team.


Probation staff supervision is an established professional practice tool, documented historically through the lens of the Probation Journal.  This article charts Journal discussions surrounding staff supervision and places them alongside a recent research study examining current practice. Study findings indicate that staff value dedicated time and space for structured supervision that contains significant elements of a more clinical approach. Nevertheless, supervision functions within congested spaces in which managerial aspects of staff engagement encroach. Finding an accommodation between differing approaches appears challenging.  More broadly, competing views resound within a landscape of looming professional registration and associated requirements of continuous professional development.


Staff supervision is a multi-dimensional process (Skills for Care, 2007), within which aspects of contestation or collusion between involved parties can occur (Saltiel, 2017). It is often characterised by managerial demands intersecting with clinical understandings of how best to conduct individual sessions, with tensions existing between the two models (Beddoe, 2010).  Within probation services it can be seen as being increasingly congested and in need of reform (Davies, 1984). Moreover, there is evidence of poor practice holding unwelcome consequences (Mor Barak, 2009). In the context of best probation practice it is these dynamics echoing through the decades and their resonance today that we explore in this paper. This exploration of staff supervision commences in the nineteen-sixties when the Probation Journal at the time spoke of a client supervisory framework located within a social work model. This working paradigm was reflected within the staff supervision process in which case discussion was seen by some as an illegitimate and unwelcomed intrusion into their professional practice. It was frowned upon and challenged by front-line practitioners as they sought to articulate and secure their professional autonomy (Frayne, 1968; Prins, 1969; Day, 1971). This historical perspective has been captured in the Journal over the decades. It is this archived record that we will access here in an attempt to gain insight and learning through examining practitioner and academic accounts from the past and allying them to current research.

Through seeking to improve staff supervision structure and content, a recent study by KSS CRC (Kent Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company) affords us the opportunity to combine some probation staff operating experiences of the present to the historical records of the past. The research study sought to not only explore the mechanism of the supervisory process but more importantly to capture the meaning and value that staff ascribe to the practice. This included exploring views on continuous professional development (CPD) and innovative ideas for improved practice. This paper draws upon the study findings and pays exclusive attention to the expressed needs of the PSOs (Probation Service Officers) and POs (Probation Officers) who engaged in the project. Some of the voices of those who participated are woven into this text so as to illuminate important issues for staff. We consider whether accounts from the past continue to resonate alongside present-day staff experiences. Certainly some contemporary voices express the indicative comment that supervision should feel more like ‘me time’ before that of a struggle to be heard within a congested and contested space, a comment that is redolent of a growing tension recognised since the mid-1980’s (Davies, 1984).

As English and Welsh probation services transition towards a greater degree of public sector reunification in the near future (MoJ, 2019), key questions emerge. To what extent can the professional supervisory needs of PSOs and POs become better aligned with organisational pressures and risk management imperatives in the decade to come? Will practitioners experience their supervision as a crowded space, freighted with elements of organisational oversight, or as an equitable place of reflection and self-development within their hectic working lives?  Although this study relates to CRC probation services, do the CPD aspects of staff supervision require greater consideration by all probation agencies within a looming world of professional registration?  This article attempts to further the historical dialogue that addresses such fundamental questions.

Understanding staff supervision

Various approaches have been employed over the years in trying to capture the essence of what supervision should be about and here we can take a very brief look at some theoretical, empirical and professionally oriented understandings. Theoretical understandings of the supervision process have been led by Proctor (1991) whose work speaks of three primary functions involved in the clinical supervision process, these being normative, formative and restorative. Normative aspects relate to the practice of supervision providing a safe environment in which trust can be built, in part to enable supervisees to explore options in their practice. Professionalism can be thought about and the supervisor proceeds similarly to that of an advisor or coach-mentor. Formative aspects involve learning and development for staff in which professional boundaries and practice with clients are reflected upon. The third aspect, restorative supervision, refers to a clinical supervision approach in which the emotional factors within practice can be explored. All aspects overlap and interact for Proctor as distinctive aspects will come to the fore at differing times. Similarly, Kadushin (2002) defines the core functions as educational, administrative and supportive. A mediative element existing between staff and their organisation is offered by Morrison (2001). In more recent times it has been further argued by others that a crucial additional function of supervision remains that of placing discussions of staff cultural awareness and identity at the centre of any meetings, with issues of power, gender and difference being addressed (Davys, 2005; McPherson et al, 2016).

As a complementary understanding to theoretical frameworks Derek Williamson’s (1978) work locates us back in the late 1970’s, during which time he undertook a survey of probation colleagues, a study that asked POs and SPOs (Senior Probation Officers) how they defined supervision, its value and its purpose. Williamson noted that his PO respondents saw the role and responsibilities of SPOs in supervision as being personal and administrative enablers; as interpreters and insight-givers; as working in an advising and supporting role; as stimulators of professional growth (through training and colleague development); as controller of practice; as manager of workloads; as maintainer of professional standards; and finally as implementer of organisational policy and practice. For some POs staff supervision was seen as a mutually beneficial process in which PO and SPO gain insights into each other’s strengths and areas for development. In terms of the value and purpose of supervision Williamson found that from a constructive perspective supervision is a source of encouragement and support for POs, as well as helping them to clarify their thinking in the areas of assessment and intervention. On the flip-side supervision was seen as limiting a POs ability to act independently, creating possible tensions with an SPO that damages a POs general provision of services, developing anxiety within POs in relation to their case management.

When we look at understandings of supervision as defined by leading professional bodies such as Skills for Care (2007) and the British Association of Social Workers (Godden: 2012) a somewhat convoluted definition emerges, with both agencies upholding that supervision should,

‘enable and support workers to build effective professional relationships, develop good practice, and exercise both professional judgement and discretion in decision-making…. it needs to combine a performance management approach with a dynamic, empowering and enabling supervisory relationship. Supervision should improve the quality of practice, support the development of integrated working and ensure continuing professional development…(through)… a learning culture by promoting an approach that develops the confidence and competence of managers in their supervision skills. It is therefore at the core of individual and group continuing professional development’.

Understandings of what effective supervision could contain and potentially produce are thus readily available, with the detrimental consequences relating to staff disengagement resulting from poorly understood and enacted supervision also being previously identified (Mor Barak, 2009). It is of note that frameworks of understanding that place staff supervision at the core of any CPD process appear welcomed by most commentators.

Journey through a journal

Much of the literature relating to staff supervision within probation practice can be viewed through the prism of the Probation Journal as it traces the development of not only the notion of supervision but also its professional application. This is supplemented here by pertinent literature from the neighbouring field of social work. Themes within the literature reverberate over the years around experiences of supervision being a disputed site at which the triad of needs represented by line managers, staff supervisees and organisational demands coalesce.  A site where worker identity, individual agency, the place of CPD within supervision, managerialism and cultural experiences, all meld into one unique encounter (Davys, 2005; Baines, 2014).

Travelling back some five decades we find ourselves in the transitional culture of the 1960s with the Probation Journal speaking of supervision in terms of an early evolutionary process. Lawrence Frayne (1968), operating in a Probation and After Care Service, offered us an insight into supervision in social casework at the time. Frayne paints a picture of an evolving professionalism within the Service in which it was becoming more requisite to develop staff skills and knowledge, in part to deal with increasing inter-agency working. This was to be achieved largely within the supervision process by an appointed ‘supervisory consultant’. This individual was to motivate, support and mentor, whilst offering an objective perspective in relation to case management. Of note however was the fact that “in this way it should be possible to minimise the resentment about the idea of supervision which most workers feel” (1968: 85). Within Frayne’s discourse the caseworker-client relationship is positioned as being of utmost importance, with quality service provision being paramount. To achieve this the confidence and spontaneity of the staff member must be preserved within the supervision process.

Remaining in the late sixties with the general discourse still rooted in social work, Herschel Prins (1969) moves the discussion away from staff feeling threatened by supervisory practices. To achieve this he locates the benefits of supervision within an educational and developmental paradigm. This is centred on skilled and insightful case management undertaken by both supervisees and supervisors. Nonetheless, while seeing supervision as an important tool for practitioners and one that should address unconscious bias and staff anxiety, he is concerned that it should not evolve into a personalised, therapeutic endeavour. Prins notes that supervision presents as a complex event and as such there are no simplistic approaches, suggesting instead alternative methods of engagement such as office-group discussions, topic specific discussions in supervision, case presentation approaches, book reviewing, or debate resulting from research findings.

Moving into the decade of the 70’s, Peter Day  (1971), operating within a Probation and After Care Service, echoes many of the issues raised by Prins (1969) with an educational aspect to supervision prevailing. Day however moves the debate one step further as he speaks of self-management in professional development and hints at reflective practice and critical peer discussion needing to be undertaken by supervisees, with individual feedback being utilised. A further idea put forward is that of more experienced staff being offered fewer supervision sessions than staff who have been in post for less than five years.  Of particular note is that, writing from a management perspective, notions of ‘improving performance’, applying ‘collective standards’, and ‘staff evaluation’ enter into the narrative in a distinctive way, to the extent that he can conclude that the evaluation of supervisees within staff supervision processes are mutually inclusive operations.

During the following decade the Probation Journal shared Mike Davies’ (1984) work with its readers. Painting somewhat of a negative picture of the whole supervision process as it had become for some by the mid-80’s, he makes the point that supervision sessions have become far too crowded, too congested, as numerous staff and organisational demands prevail. Six supervision models are presented by Davies, these being the Tutorial model (with SPO, one-to-one, discussion style), Case Consultation (with SPO, one-to-one, case focussed, consultative in nature, non-managerial, minimal agency demands),Tandem Supervision (collaborative, equitable approach between two peers, self-organising, non-managerial, minimal agency demands) Peer Group (team discussion, self-organising, independent, minimal agency demands), Team Supervision (managerial style team approach, with significant organisational expectations) and the Supervisory Group model (SPO lead, team supervision, some organisational expectations). Additionally, Davies encourages us to see supervision as having three distinctive aspects that can be enacted independently. Firstly, supervision that focusses upon individuals and their personal, human, psychological needs; secondly, supervision that focusses on individuals as employees, with accountability and standardisation being addressed; and thirdly, supervision that focusses upon staff as professionals, with CPD needs being at the fore. For Davies, the practical application of these ideas represents a more energising and authentic way forward.

Still in the 1980s, Gwyneth Boswell (1986) strikes a more considerate tone as she questions where support for SPOs is to come from within a role that she characterises as containing multiple and conflicting demands upon Seniors. This is especially so in relation to managing the powerful dynamic contained within the SPO – PO relationship.  A relationship ‘in which care versus control is just as hot an issue for supervisors of fieldworkers as for supervisors of clients’ (1986: 137). An answer that Boswell suggest in order to maintain the fragile balancing act within this relationship is for greater clarity and identity to be formed around the expectations inherent within the SPO role.

Unfortunately, the decade of the nineties was not awash with research articles pertaining to probation staff supervision. As such we have to fast-forward into the 21st Century where we find Liz Beddoe (2010) speaking about the staff surveillance aspects of supervision. Although her work pertains to staff supervision within social work the issues at hand hold clear parallels with those present in probation, especially regarding risk management in ‘the risk society’ (Beck, 1992; Giddens: 1999) in which the perceived control of societal risks and accountability plays an ever increasing role. Beddoe explores how broader notions of risk within society extend to surveillance and control of professionals, in part through risk averse, defensive, output driven bureaucratic systems and that this risk aversion is in-turn maintained partly through the supervision process. As with Boswell above (1986) this cannot but impact directly upon the supervisor-supervisee relationship, leading to tensions within it. What is therefore not required, according to Beddoe, is the current muddled approach that confusingly intermingles functional, organisational-management requirements with clinical, CPD focussed professional needs. Greater clarity within balancing the functions of supervision is required. Furthermore, trust is at the heart of clinical, reflective and critically supportive supervision. This cannot be fully maintained within a culture that privileges organisational surveillance and control within staff supervisory agendas.

Sue Rex and Nigel Hosking (2013) pick-up the staff supervision theme within the Probation Journal some years later as they advocate for the SEEDS (Skills, Effective Engagement and Development in Supervision) model. This structured approach attempts to integrate organisational and front-line practices in a consistently applied way when working with service users. The model is made up of initial training followed by quarterly training that supervising officers attend alongside their SPOs, with CPD events to support learning. Although primarily a model to support service user engagement it recognises the seminal role of staff supervision within this process. For Rex and Hoskins staff supervision needs to occur within a constructive and supportive, top to bottom organisational culture, a culture that assists middle-managers to enact their critical role. Within the SEEDS model of best practice reflective supervision and action learning carry equal weight to the complementary practices of pro-social modelling and observed practice.

Finally, and with a second brief detour into the social work literature, we find the work of David Saltiel (2017) speaking to our current situation as he proposes a model of supervision that is fundamentally collaborative in nature. This is due in part to the highly complex and contested space that he understands supervision to represent as both supervisor and supervisee wrestle to shape their professional identities whilst at the same time striving to forge individual and collective knowledge. Saltiel acknowledges in particular the intense pressures inherent within the working lives of supervisors, principally those new to the role, as they struggle to implement skills and strategies within supervision sessions that foster ongoing team morale and cohesion. As such, for Saltiel a cooperative and collaborative approach has evolved that represents one contemporary way forward for both parties within supervision, developed in order to negotiate and accommodate the maintenance of their individual and collective professional identities. The question for us now is, how do previous ideas, models, research studies and personal experiences sit alongside present day research findings?

Study methods

During the spring and summer of 2019 KSS CRC undertook a study of all staff within its operational divisions, including Devon, Dorset, Cornwall, as well as Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Wales probation region. The process was managed by internally employed researchers. Research methods utilised consisted of an electronically administered survey questionnaire, a discriminating literature review and some open discussions within staff forums. The study questionnaire contained quantitatively focussed questions alongside further qualitatively focussed open response enquiries. A total of 206 staff members across all operational areas, roles and grades voluntarily responded to the survey, providing a response rate of some 23 percent. Informative materials within the survey reassured respondents of their anonymity within the process and the confidentiality of resultant materials.  Characteristics of gender, age, impairment, sex, race and ethnicity were not sought. Length of time in service was sought and it is of note that nearly one-third of respondents had been employed by the organisation for less than five years. Here we draw primarily upon the qualitative aspects of the survey with occasional reference to the more immediately quantifiable aspects as we seek to unearth the values, purposes and individual meanings that PSOs and POs afford their supervision sessions with their SPOs. Their ideas and innovations in relation to improved staff supervisory practice were also sought within the survey. Themed responses from within the findings were analysed (Braun and Clarke, 2006).

Study findings

The KSS CRC study brings us into the present context as it offered staff the opportunity to express their views about what are the most valuable and meaningful aspects of their supervision sessions with their line managers.  Patterned responses suggest an association with staff professional identities, personal competence, contentment, motivation and individual agency in work related settings, all allied to differing levels of personal confidence. The majority of staff undertook supervision on a bi-monthly basis, as per CRC policy, and this lasted for a period of between sixty to ninety minutes.

Amongst POs and PSOs the most prominent aspect of the survey findings to materialise is that of the value to staff of having dedicated, private, uninterrupted, face to face supervision with their SPO. Within this dedicated space and time it is important that staff feel listened-to and supported, indicating that they require their views and needs to be taken on-board. The human contact with an SPO is invaluable and supervision is at its best when it contains a high degree of what study respondents described as, ‘taking the time to reflect. Me time!’. Hopefully, SPOs hear as well as listen, with a resultant active response. Part of this process includes space and time for shared reflection on all relevant issues, including team dynamics and shared problem solving. The findings indicate that line managers must take a genuine interest in their supervisees in order to prevent supervision becoming experienced by colleagues as a tick-box exercise, being felt to be mechanical or superficial in nature.

As indicated by many respondents, ‘phone, e-mail or colleague interruptions are not welcomed and sessions remain of less value if conducted remotely by Skype or ‘phone. Supervision should be time that is scheduled, that is intentionally set-aside well-in advance of the meeting. It is time and space devoted to the task and arranging supervision should be driven by the SPO, not left to the supervisee to chase-up. It is not helpful for supervision session be frequently cancelled, especially at the last minute, as this is disruptive and seen as disrespectful by some study respondents. Supervisees welcome supervision notes being produced on every occasion and value supervision sessions not being dominated by reviewing target completions.

According to many survey respondents, within the supervision process SPO feedback appears to play a crucial role in terms of offering reassurance, confidence building and recognition of hard work. It works best when it has a predominantly positive focus, including any feedback that may occur being largely constructive in tone, with motivational advice by one survey respondent being offered as, ‘more of a platform for individual development and progression, clinical supervision, less emphasis on targets,…less stick and more carrot’. Whilst more recently employed staff may require greater confidence building, all staff welcome some, albeit brief, recognition of the difficult and demanding role they undertake. In the context of high workloads, constant demands, notions of speedy justice and staff recruitment challenges, issues relating to personal health and wellbeing in work inevitably come to the fore. The demonstration of genuine interest in a colleague when allied to an employer’s duty of care would appear to make finding time and space for such discussion an imperative

Sitting closely alongside the experiences of dedicated face to face time spent with an SPO are the associated and overlapping issues of having time to discuss case management concerns. Case oversight by SPOs can be seen within the study as relating directly to a supervisees levels of experience and confidence with newly appointed and more established staff requiring differing levels of input from their SPOs. Survey findings also indicate that alongside the management of large caseloads and workloads staff continue to give consideration to the quality of their work, reflecting upon the effectiveness of their supervision of service users, thus seeking to maintain a balance between the quantity of work output and quality of probation intervention. Located within survey comments about case management oversight lies the associated issues of meeting targets relating to performance outcomes. Study findings indicate that with any over-emphasis upon these they become frowned upon in the view of many practitioners. Simply put, supervision sessions should not be dominated by target driven case management oversight. In practice this means ‘not going through each case alphabetically’, as some indicated. This is not however to be confused with supportive, developmental, case management oversight that is limited in extent to complex or risk laden individual cases, which appears welcomed by staff.

It is of note that a significant degree of respondents see the issue of discussing and planning for their future professional development within their current role, or advancement into other roles, as important. This is thus a CPD issue for a number of colleagues that holds some importance within the formal setting of staff supervision sessions. For some this could simply take the form of,

‘questions on what aspects of work are you enjoying, what aspects of work are you least enjoying, what do you think you do well, what do you struggle doing? Some discussions as listed above….and maybe some short-term goals to focus on between supervision sessions’.

The above comment hardly conveys any hugely demanding and unrealistic expectations, but rather an aspiration relating to some initial steps within a managed, developmental process. This issue includes comments relating to advancement in work and the lack of discussion around promotional opportunities or training in readiness for more senior posts.

Aspects of the survey also attempted to explore the ways in which respondents felt that supervision could be improved. A variety of ideas emerged that serve to stimulate discussion for future professional practice. Some respondents felt that discussion of such broader issues such as CRC policy, or structural and procedural changes could be confined to team meetings in order to free-up space within individual supervision sessions. Further to this supervision session could be focused around certain key themes so as to structure the time better, with themes alternating between sessions. Ideas were expressed around forms of group supervision being encouraged and developed with some staff indicating, ‘yeh, we use to do that and it worked well’. These different formats for supervision could be devised, according to some, so as to avoid the over-use of individual computer focused sessions. In this context, team based, practice focused, bite-sized learning events were also proposed.

The issue of reflective practice featured strongly within the survey. The theme was captured by one participant who indicated that,

‘there is a lack of reflective practice, clinical supervision, and this would be more meaningful, the impact of work on myself, given that I have been doing the job for a longtime, and how to keep energized. More social worky type reflective practice’.

Responses suggested that greater reflective practice time needs to be built-into supervision sessions, possibly with clinical supervision delivered by an outside agency being offered to staff. Some respondents suggested that staff should be encouraged to attend supervision with their own agenda. This experience implies that for some staff, with certain line managers, this does not occur. Regional cultural practices may of course play a role here as this approach may be discouraged in some areas. Whatever the local situation this suggestion denotes a mutually shared approach in which supervisee personal confidence and autonomy are developed.

Lastly, several PSOs and POs demonstrated a degree of understanding and sympathy for the position that their SPO colleagues find themselves in, suggesting that line managers should be offered greater training in how to conduct supervision sessions. Nonetheless, of note were comments suggesting that too much emphasis is placed by some SPOs on the simplistic idea of resilience as being an all-encompassing answer to dealing with complex workload pressures. Additionally, any culture of over reliance upon limited training in this area needs to change. This was particularly so for certain colleagues who experience mental health difficulties. Some suggested that, ‘supervision should focus on the wellbeing of staff. It’s an opportunity to discuss health and wellbeing, raise difficult cases, resolve problems with cases….i do not believe that supervision should be used to check…missing data, nor should it be used for performance. This can cause more stress and anxiety which defeats the purpose of supervision’.


As exhibited within this research study and documented elsewhere (HMIP, 2019; HMIP, 2020) the influences represented by time pressures, significant caseloads and challenging staffing levels all offer broader context to the current operational climate, from which no immediate escape appears possible. Consequently, supervision sessions can feel compressed, offering less space for individual and personalised activities as articulated by staff. Additionally, in light of the competing functions outlined above what presents as requiring attention is the experience of supervision feeling for some study respondents like ‘trying to fit a quart into a pint pot’. The extent to which individual practitioners and organisations can accommodate competing pressures remains of significance as commentators wrestle with what probation is going to look like in the decade to come (Burke, et al, 2016; Deering, 2016; Dominey and Burke, 2016). This includes operating within a post-truth political climate in which evidence based practice may become marginalised (Raynor, 2018).

It is difficult to challenge the view that increasingly since the late 1960’s the content of supervision sessions has become more complex (Williamson, 1978) with no simple answers (Prins, 1969) and the current study does not claim to address all issues. It is small scale in extent, with a limited response rate and confined to a single service provider. It does not disaggregate the diversity requirements of staff. Nor does it address the additional complexity of staff appraisal within the annual supervisory cycle, something that has evolved into a contemporary and intrinsic aspect of the overall process. Staff diversity requirements within supervision and the staff appraisal process within contemporary management culture therefore provide distinct avenues for further research enquiry.

What is also limited within this study but ever present as a key component within the immediate context is the role and participation of SPOs within the staff supervisory process. Few probation practitioners today would argue against the view that front-line SPOs find themselves working somewhere between a rock and a hard place, with recent HM Inspectorate reports reflecting this issue (HMIP, 2020). With senior management and organizational pressures from above pressing against resource, practitioner and risk management demands from below, working life over the decades has become increasingly managerial in scope and demanding in nature (Brown, 1969; Thornborough, 1972; Boswell, 1986).  In the NPS (National Probation Service) at least the SPO role presents as too broad in nature, with insufficient time to balance quality and workload issues. Many SPOs are relatively new in post and require sufficient training in such policy issues as attendance management, discipline and grievance. They work many hours overtime, often feeling overwhelmed by demands of the role (HMIP, 2020).

The limited evidence that is available from the KSS CRC study offers the impression that SPOs operate somewhere between the two ends of a supervision spectrum in which professional aspirations struggling within an arena of incessant work demands. SPO clarity of role may prove interesting here as the bifurcating demands of the job require not only organisational support (Boswell, 1986) but assistance with the challenges of identity formation in terms of self, team and wider organisation (Saltier, 2017) as aspects of this may become lost within pressured working environments. Of note is the fact that several respondents within the current study were clearly aware and sympathetic towards the position of SPOs, reminiscent of values held since the 1970s that supervision should be a mutually beneficial process for all involved (Williamson, 1978). Further research generated insights into the SPO experience are clearly required.

What cannot be omitted from any discussion on this topic are the findings of Mor Barak (2009) that suggest the possible consequences of poor supervisory practice encompass a diluted sense of staff commitment towards employers, a reduced sense of job satisfaction, less robust wellbeing and a demotivating sense of ineffectiveness in role. A clear sense of these issues pervades comments from study respondents as they wrestle to carve-out some personal reflective space within their supervision. All these experiences must surely contribute to an increase in staff absence levels, alienation in work and eventual premature departure, occurrences that some have observed in various forms within probation for several decades, especially in periods of change (Walker, 1991; Wilson, 1984; Farrow, 2004). Observations that surely suggest the necessity for an increased focus upon the current efficacy of any supervision policies, processes and practices.

For study respondents who worked in the latter decades of the 20th century much of this narrative may feel like deja-vue, all over again!  It must be remembered however that much was transformed into abject chaos following probation’s ideologically driven dismantling  process of 2014 and later years (Transforming Rehabilitation, 2018) with the subsequent negative impact on front-line staff (Walker, 2019). Allied to this, according to the current study up to one-third of staff have been newly employed by the CRC within the last five years, probably knowing very little of previous practice approaches. It is perhaps here that we can learn from history as the literature informs us that the supervision process is an evolving phenomena and as such can continue to adapt and develop as practitioners see fit. Different forms of supervision have been utilized in the past and still remain available today (Davies, 1984) as staff creativity continues to offer avenues for inventiveness and experimentation.

The above issues preface the seminal and central issue of contention at hand, how to balance the competing functions contained within supervision, particularly managerial aspects set against clinical practices within a potentially infrequent, time limited meeting. Is it routinely possible within PSO-PO supervision sessions with an SPO to maintain the delicate balance between individualised, best practice, case discussion, over and against organisational risk management and outcome driven oversight of many cases within any given caseload? The study indicates that PSOs and POs welcome some limited case discussion, advice and guidance in relation to how to improve case work and service user interactions but not at the significant cost of foregoing their reflective, person-centred, developmental considerations. One way to address the above balancing act may be to make a clearer distinction in practice between clinical and managerial approaches to delivering supervision and try and ensure that the two do not intermingle (Beddoe, 2010). This is perhaps easier said than done within actual front-line practice. Though suggested approaches that attempt to separate supervision functions (Davies, 1984; Beddoe, 2010) may make for less compacted meetings it could suggest that one meeting may be replaced by two or more and within the context of time pressures the ongoing supervision predicament appears to continue. Indeed, it may be the case that the pressures that shape the issues at hand may make any successful supervision time-function balancing act within meetings prove impossible to fully attain, especially if staffing levels remain reduced. Interestingly, perhaps the answer already exists to some extent somewhere within everyday realities as Saltiel’s creative, inter-personal dynamics approach to understanding supervisory relationships offers up possibilities. An approach in which tacit, mutually generative interactions within working relationships assist in forging shared identity, professionalism, knowledge formation and decision making (Saltiel, 2017).

Interestingly, practitioners within this study appear to have moved away from previous historical feelings of supervision posing a threat to their professional autonomy and as being damaging to service user relationships (Frayne, 1968) as they now seem to welcome some space and time to reflect and problem solve with a line manager in relation to team and case management concerns. The SPO practice of offering practical and insightful feedback forms an integral and important aspect of this process as staff seek to improve their professional practice. Notably however, the current study may suggest some reduced discussion within supervision sessions pertaining to building service user trust and rapport as this aspect of the process becomes subsumed under risk management driven concerns. As we have observed, this can be seen as a practice that lacks merit as it is suggested that conspicuous people-centred approaches need to take precedence (Beddoe, 2010) if staff engagement is to be fully fostered, with the current study suggesting that aspects of a more clinical approach to supervision present as indispensable.

In order to try and fit a quart of work into a pint pot of time the idea of increasingly displacing some of the traditional functions of the supervision process towards alternative roles, such as those of a QDO (Quality Development Officers), may partly address the supervision time-function conundrum, albeit paradoxically this takes staff away from managing cases (HMIP, 2020). Some NPS divisions (HMPPS, 2019) and the particular CRC contained within this study have adopted the QDO model within their current planning. Those aspects that SPOs would relinquished however may relate primarily to the clinical, developmental characteristics of staff supervision and it is these elements that many SPOs enjoy engaging in, leaving them with largely case management oversight duties, providing an approach that many seniors may not themselves welcome. Whatever practices are adopted, time and space in which to express one’s inner world must be developed, as in the view of Fellowes, within the context of working with highly complex service users, ‘without containing structures through which the work can be digested and made sense of its difficulty will remain avoided, in an inevitably doomed attempt to make it less so’ (2014: 196).

The notion of a focus within supervision session upon key practice themes affords us the opportunity to revisit possibilities from the past (Prins, 1969). Further to this, group supervision presents a study outcome that may sit as a complementary approach alongside individual supervision with case formulation models already existing in the NPS (Radcliffe et al, 2017). Ideas around bite-size learning also emerge, especially if QDOs are in place to offer brief learning interventions that support or reinforce other approaches, with existing examples available where practice is identified as in need of immediate improvement (NPS, 2019). Whilst pitfalls regarding individualised, remote learning are understood (Davies, 2011) the use of brief learning videos or podcasts are available and could be better utilised in order for staff to consider a range of professional considerations (Irwin-Rogers, 2017). Indeed, if skills based learning is encouraged, Raynor upholds that ‘a focus on practitioner’s skills suggests a shift away from managerial, top-down approaches which rely on the elaboration of guidance and procedural requirements’ (2019: 9), suggesting an opportunity for the enhancement of greater informal learning methods.

In the context of a pressured working environment issues surrounding personal health and wellbeing impact directly upon practitioners, as previously evidenced in other studies (Walker, 2019). This is perhaps unsurprising in light of a national working environment in which the only constant is that of perpetual change, with ‘TR2’ next generation contracts imposing themselves over the years ahead (MoJ, 2019). Matters of staff confidence in disclosing personal difficulties in meetings with line managers speaks in part to the broader issue of an employer’s duty of care towards its employees, exercised through constructive relationships maintained within healthy supervisory cultures. Allied to the assistive aspects contained within any clinical supervision process is that of staff exhibiting a self-affirming degree of autonomy and personal agency. This is largely observed in the current study through some staff providing their own agenda for discussion within supervision sessions, conceivably to maintain a sense of control over their work-wellbeing equilibrium. Perhaps as professionals there is an inherent expectation within any role that individuals constructively contribute to supervision agendas so as to maintain full engagement, motivation and a sense of personal fulfilment.

Any compromised wellbeing may also speak of experiences of lessened job satisfaction, self-application and subsequent commitment (Mor Barak, 2009), all of which perpetuate staff retention difficulties and supports arguments for more clinical supervision methods. The current study raises the idea that although the agential practice of contributing to meeting agendas may be upheld more by experienced staff who hold the required levels of confidence to enact such shared interactions, the potential health and motivational benefits could be accessed by all. The desired health benefits of clinical supervision are already recorded as matters of interest within probation services as some NPS staff have previously shared their desire for such practice to be employed within a supervisory framework in which spaces for agential creativity are welcomed (Coley, 2016). Additionally, if recent levels of low morale and malaise (Farrow, 2004) within probation services are to be lessened then finding time for motivational reflective approaches may present as part of any issue resolution.

Across all probation services sufficient space and time within supervision sessions appears necessary if the requirements of professional development are to be taken seriously, as MoJ aspirations surrounding ‘world-class, evidence based professional development opportunities’ (M0J, 2019:7) need to be managed. There is evidence that in some fields of probation services there is room for improvement (HMIP, 2020). The study theme of engagement in CPD, training and planning for advancement in work demonstrates an interest and commitment by staff towards self-development in both personal and professional terms. This bodes well for future professional registration of all probation practitioners, alongside staff belief in their cultural identity being located within notions of resilience, dedication and skills in multi-tasking (Mawby and Worrall, 2011).  CPD can of course take many forms and occur through informal learning spaces, all of which nonetheless require managerial support through formal channels such as the guided learning relationship (Illeris, 2010). Formal training can be complemented with such practices as action learning sets as similar previous advocated methods (Rex and Hoskins, 2013) tentatively begin to remerge through such skills based approaches as SEEDS2 (HMPPS, 2019). The SEEDS model certainly calls for a comprehensive, systematic and integrated approach to staff development leading to practice improvement. Lastly, in order to combat any post-truth political climate (Raynor, 2018) perhaps supervisors need to heed Prins’ (1969) advice from the 1960s and enable staff to spend more time collectively exploring all available empirical research studies. Pragmatically speaking, a menu of approaches from which practitioners can select bespoke options may provide a foreseeable way forward within any dynamic future supervision framework.


Having explored professional supervisory practice within probation in recent decades and having captured a contemporary snap-shot of staff experiences in one section of probation services we are now better positioned to address the central challenges inherent within current staff supervision processes. This study advances the important and now lengthy professional debate relating to the highly personal and agential supervisory space, located as it is within the crowded world of present day probation practice. It asks anew to what extent it is feasible or indeed desirable to reconcile the functions of managerial supervision with those of a more person-centred nature. Study respondents clearly indicate that whilst not wanting to abandon managerial oversight of complex and risk laden casework, a greater accommodation with a more clinical approach to supervision needs to be found. Within the demanding and exhausting role of front-line case management some dedicated time and space for staff to explore and address their inner experiences is imperative. This speaks to issues of wellbeing as much as of good front-line practice as workloads place significant demands upon individuals and teams. Indeed, the staff supervision time-function dilemma may prove impossible to overcome without greater staff numbers and enhanced support for SPOs. Study respondents express their aspiration for supervision and CPD to operate in tandem, with new or revisited methods to both being considered for implementation. This discussion must be continued if professional and best practice standards are to be developed for future supervisory models in which the need for fundamental human interaction and quality practice remain highly valued by front-line staff. Additionally, whatever meaningful supervisory frameworks are adopted, it is suggested that they need to further enhance staff development as a core component of their ongoing implementation. Indeed, the prospect of future practitioner registration within a new probation landscape demands that the planning and execution of staff CPD needs to be placed far more front and centre.


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