Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

KATE KNIGHT (Surrey & Sussex Probation Trust)

KATE KNIGHT (Surrey & Sussex Probation Trust)

AWARD WINNER 2011-12: Kate receives her Award for her outstanding practice a Probation Officer at Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust, as an offender manager and as a champion of good practice and role model and inspiration to her colleagues. Among very many comments in support of her nomination, Kate is described by her manager as “an exceptional member of staff” and  by a former colleague as “without doubt the finest practitioner I have worked with”, while one of former her clients said, “she has turned my life around, she is just amazing”. 

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

[Kate Knight gives her account of the work for which she won her award]

I won a Butler Trust Award both for my creative one to one work with offenders, helping them to turn their lives around, and for inspiring my colleagues.  My enthusiasm for the work and my willingness to lead by example encouraged other team members to explore different approaches.  This led to an improvement in performance and morale.

The role of Quality Development Officer (QDO) was created by the Sussex Probation Trust in 2009 and I was one of the first to be appointed, having taken the decision not to pursue the management path, following a restructure of the organisation.  This new role was two-fold, in that it required me to hold a caseload (albeit small) and assist the Senior Probation Officer (SPO) in improving quality within the team.  The role carried no management responsibility or additional remuneration!

Having established myself in the diverse role of not only colleague and mentor, but also quality assessor, I then became actively involved in a new project, initiated by NOMS – the Offender Engagement Project (OEP).

Initially this required me to attend a Project launch in London, along with several other colleagues.  At the launch I discovered that the purpose of the project was to look again at one to one work with offenders (in recent years most of the focus has been on delivering group work programmes), using recent research on desistance as the underpinning rationale.  I was absolutely thrilled with everything that I heard and came back highly motivated to start straight away.  I then discovered that nominations were being sought for a practitioner reference group for the project and I applied immediately and was successful.

Since my successful nomination, I have attended numerous practitioner meetings at NOMS headquarters in London, a forum where good practice has been shared and our views have been sought on a wide range of issues, including input ahead of the launch of the new National Standards.  I was also selected to assist a small working party, looking for practitioner input into improving the quality of our electronic offender assessments (OASys).

All of these meetings have always been highly motivational and I have been very happy to share what I have learnt.  One really good example was a colleague from Kent who had secured a small amount of funding to improve resources in interview rooms.  It struck me that this was a startlingly obvious (so obvious I had never thought of it!) and easy improvement that could be introduced in Worthing.  My manager was very supportive and my colleagues were unbelievably enthusiastic.  Within a few weeks, all interview rooms were kitted out with coloured paper, pens, stickers, egg timers, calculators, glitter, sticky stars – a veritable stationary heaven!  This then led to other officers recovering the notice boards, revamping the rather tired posters and obtaining flip charts.  Within weeks, broken or tatty furniture was removed and staff resources (chairs from the staff meeting room) redistributed to interview rooms.

For less than £50 all our five interview rooms had been completely transformed into welcoming places that had a sense of purpose and pride and respect for the people (staff and offenders) that worked in them.

The next step was to encourage people to fully utilise the new materials and new space.  I ran a number of workshops looking at the Desistance theory – see materials at Appendix 2..  People very quickly realised that what the OEP represented was a return to the type of working that people had originally entered the Service to undertake.  Someone in my team told me that they had been given their job ‘back’ and another colleague, returning after maternity leave, said that she had been on the verge of resigning, but now felt the happiest she had ever felt.  I saw my role as encouraging people to change, building confidence, sharing good practice and maintaining momentum and enthusiasm.  I did this by always raising the subject at team meetings, having practical examples of work completed and exercises used, so that colleagues could see the tangible benefits and rewards of working in this way.  I have also regularly observed all members of the team and given detailed verbal and written feedback – including encouraging them to share their good practice.  See Appendix 3 for some examples of this.

In April 2011, I was instrumental in designing and delivery a team away day – the focus of which was offender engagement.  The day was informal and relaxed (in line with the highly successful management style of my SPO, Michelle Butler) and very focussed on the practical aspects of working with offenders. Officers were asked to bring all their materials that they had gathered over the years and these were the shared, assessed and decisions taken about their usefulness/efficacy.  As a consequence of this day, we did not have to reinvent the wheel, but instead discovered a wealth of hitherto untapped knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm.  Offender engagement has become fully owned by the Worthing team – it has been grown out of what we had, rather than imposed from above.  My job – and I believe I have been successful – was to encourage and foster the skills of my colleagues and to ensure enthusiasm and energy did not dip.

The work has now really gained its own momentum.  The interview rooms are full of new materials that officers regularly devise, share and use.  Walking past one of them on any day in Worthing, you could see people engrossed in role plays, officer and offenders bent over tables completing lifelines and family trees, people actively involved in exercises looking at issues such as relationships, violence and trust, all of which make it very clear that the quality of communication has improved.  This is reflected, too, in the reduction in the numbers failing to attend appointments.

The waiting room has also been transformed – not my work – it is now full of photographs of successful unpaid work projects, helpful posters and up to date leaflets.  There is a free lending library of staff-donated novels for offenders to use, a marked decline in litter and a compete cessation of graffiti.

As a consequence of all of these initiatives, the Worthing office is now appears to be held to be a beacon of good practice in terms of working effectively, creatively and empathetically with offenders (I know that many other teams have taken a fresh look at what is in their interview rooms).  The Chief Executive of the Trust and the Chair of the Board have both been moved to spend a day observing our practice and have been impressed.

This work is, of course, ongoing – there is no place for complacency; such an attitude would be fatal to the spirit of innovation, creativity and professional pride  that we have all worked so hard to rekindle.

INSPIRE ARTICLE

[The following article appeared in issue 4 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Kate Knight has won a Butler Trust award for outstanding practice in her role as quality development officer at Worthing Offender Management Team, part of Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust. A champion of good practice and role model to her team, she’s described by one former colleague as ‘without doubt the finest practitioner I’ve ever worked with’.

A former solicitor and a teacher, Kate took up her post in 2009. Her job involves coaching colleagues to ensure good practice and continuous development, although she also continues to work as an offender manager, holding a mixed caseload.

How does she feel about being described as ‘inspirational’ by her colleagues? ‘It’s very flattering,’ she says. ‘I absolutely love the work, and I guess that’s what people see – someone who’s been doing the job for a while but hasn’t become dispirited and cynical about the work. I still find the job as interesting as when I started – in fact, more so because I feel a bit more confident. I think it’s probably my interest in the job that would lead people to say they were inspired by me, and I’m quite passionate about it as well.’

She’s seen as frank and honest, with a great sense of humour, and she’s acknowledged as being instrumental in driving the team’s performance and boosting morale. Senior staff have been extremely impressed with her professionalism, dedication and commitment, as well as her often very innovative approach.

‘If I meet an obstacle, I’ll go away and think “there is a solution – I just can’t see it at the moment”,’ she says. ‘I’ve got into the habit of trying to think outside the box and be creative if the funds aren’t there through the normal channels. I’ve worked with charities and I’ve found that they’ve been very willing to step in and help if they’re asked, so I’m very much of the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” brigade.’

But it’s not just her fellow staff who are full of praise. Comments from offenders she’s worked with include ‘she turned my life around’, ‘if it wasn’t for Kate I wouldn’t be where I am today’ and ‘she’s always there for me – she’s just amazing’. What most clients seem to praise, however, is her sheer tenacity and refusal to give up on people.

‘Yes, that is true,’ she says. ‘For a lot of people we deal with, their experience of authority is that people have often given up on them. I don’t like to give up, because I don’t want them to say, “there you are – everyone’s given up on me and so have you”.

That excellent feedback even extends to those clients with a deeply entrenched view of the criminal justice system. ‘Well, the thing about this job is if you go that little bit further than you’re expected to go – if you go those couple of extra steps – what you get back is a mountain of goodwill and progress,’ she stresses. ‘People are so appreciative that someone is willing to go out of their way a little bit. It’s not much on your part for a huge benefit for somebody else.’

Her passion for effective offender engagement has led to her representing Surrey and Sussex on the national Offender Engagement Programme’s practitioner reference group, and she was also asked to take part in the national OASys (Offender Assessment System) review group, to look at how assessment can be improved to facilitate better offender engagement.

She’s also been very closely involved in the pilot project to formulate a new approach to offender management. Beginning in June 2010, the intention was to come up with something less bureaucratic and with more of a focus on staff using their professional judgement.

The pilot, which involved a major cultural change that needed to be very well managed, went ‘much better than anyone had anticipated’, she says. ‘Because we weren’t always doing routine tasks on the computer, we were out doing home visits instead and people were saying, “this is what I came into probation to do”.’

A new set of standards, based on the pilot, has now been issued for the whole service. ‘Those national standards – which Surrey-Sussex was the pilot for – allow people to exercise their judgment more, so the tasks that we do and the reviews that we do are no longer routinised. They’re about responding to the individual sitting in front of you, and assessing them on a one-by-one basis. The guidelines we had were very stringent and exacting – they were a comfort blanket, there’s no doubt about it – so it took a lot of courage on the senior managers’ part to do the pilot. But it’s reaped dividends.’

In order to allay some of the fears that practitioners might have, she was also involved in producing an explanatory DVD about the standards for other probation chiefs. ‘The idea is to say, “yes we appreciate it’s a big change and people will be apprehensive, but there are other practitioners talking about it and showing that it worked well”, she says.

Her main focus, however, is still on her one-to-one work with offenders, and remaining very much at the coalface is vital to her role. ‘That’s absolutely central to what we do,’ she says. ‘It’s something that I try to instil in my colleagues – if you can build a bond with a person, if you can find a key and establish a trust between you, that’s when you can really help people to change. You can be there and be part of that change with them, but you can only do that if they feel that you’re on their side.’

That doesn’t mean ‘condoning or agreeing with everything they’ve done’, she stresses. ‘But if you can establish a rapport and a trust when you’ve got something difficult to say to them that they’re not going to want to hear, then they hear it better. They don’t become aggressive or defensive, because they know that, even though it’s a difficult thing you’re telling them, you’ve got their best interests at heart.’

Another constant in her work has been her determination to maintain a central focus on children, something she sees as absolutely crucial. ‘I used to have a very good senior manager who would always drill into me, “are there children in the house?” and that stayed with me,’ she says.

‘Sometimes people see social services as the experts – and rightly so, they are – but we actually have a lot of contact with people where there are children in the household, and we know a lot about the behaviours of those adults. I always say to people, “you see them for 20 minutes in an interview room with CCTV and an alarm, but if you were seven what would it feel like when you heard that person’s key in the door?”

‘We have a lot of expertise in looking at risky behaviours like drugs and alcohol and domestic violence,’ she continues. ‘We hold an awful lot of information, and when you see these public enquiries it’s always about agencies not passing on their little bit of the jigsaw, because they don’t think it’s relevant. I always tell people it’s better to pass on too much rather than too little. People become involved and they start to see the offender as a whole person, and they feel that they’re doing some good. It’s rewarding if you take that little bit of effort.’

For more information: contact Surrey & Sussex Probation Trust; Probation Service

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