My parents were teachers and when I was born, being quite conventional people, they went through the girls’ list in the baby names book of the time to consider their options. My Mum’s priority was to find a girl’s name that didn’t remind her of schoolgirls she had taught but barely tolerated. It turned out that Gillian was the only one that met the brief. Being called Gill Hirst has more or less worked for me apart from poor Gill Hurst in the North East getting quite a lot of my emails and spell-check constantly suggesting that my second name should be hirsute. Being able to put a bit of blurb on Linked In and a photo on Facebook means that most people looking for me now can make sure they’ve got the right one if they want me and avoid me if they don’t.
If I’m honest, it’s not the name I would have chosen for myself. Over time, I have thought of ones that better match my sense of self and ambition. If I were to re-name myself now, I’d go for Esme in honour of the greatest witch Discworld, and this world, ever saw. One of the interesting things about Granny (Esme) Weatherwax is that she took the honorific without having children or grandchildren – she just appropriated the status with absolute confidence and no-one ever questioned it. Granny Gill may be a real one but Granny Weatherwax fulfils the role in a much more convincing way.
So… we were thinking in the Fellows’ meeting about how best to capture that you don’t need to be providing ‘probation services’ for the Institute to have something to offer you as a member and wondering whether the name might be putting off people who don’t have ‘probation’ in their job title or who aren’t commissioned providers of ‘probation services’. The plan is that anyone with an interest or involvement in the work being done with people on probation would find a form of membership and involvement that was relevant and useful for them so the Institute can meet its goal of, through the membership, better serving the public by improving services to those people, their victims and those potentially at risk from them in the future.
There are some arguments then in favour of a broader title: Rehabilitation Institute, Community Justice Institute, Council of Desistance… I guess Granny Weatherwax could have called herself ‘Giving-People-What-They-Need-Not-What-They-Want Weatherwax’ but, if a name has cultural resonance, can be translated into other languages and folk generally have a sense of what it means, I think it’s good enough to keep it simple. ‘Probation’ works for me as long as the Probation Institute narrative continues to make clear that it’s the interest in working with people on probation that defines the membership, not the letters before and after their names.
Mulling this over on the train home brought me back to the question of what we call people on probation as well as the people working with them (some of whom, John Wiseman reminded me, narrowly escaped being called Community Rehabilitation and Punishment Officers, with its unfortunate abbreviation, at one point). Starting with ‘clients’, ‘offenders’, or ‘service users’, I remembered that I had once written on this subject* and tried to find my analysis of Probation Journal articles about people convicted of sex offences: how we referred to them and what this might mean for the work with them…at least, I think that’s what it was about, I couldn’t immediately put my hands on it!
Anyway, I’m going to make a plea for calling anyone subject to a community order, suspended sentence order or post custodial licence or notice of supervision ‘a person on probation’ or – if brevity is absolutely critical – ‘a probationer’. Probation is a great word: practically everyone recognises what the term implies: being given a chance to prove something, trying a new identity and facing consequences in the event of failure. The actual content of a court sentence (community payback, rehabilitation activity, licence conditions etc.) mean much less to the general public, in my view, than the fact of being ‘on probation’ and under some kind of supervision. I know we’ve traditionally not said that people on licence or parole are on probation but other countries use the same words for both and at least it avoids confusion with people who run pubs.
As the train drew into Wickford, my thinking had moved on to how job titles unite but also divide those engaged in working with people on probation. In the seventies there were, I believe, ‘A’ and ‘B’ grade probation officers, grade and rate of pay being determined by factors that included graduate/non-graduate status. In the eighties (or was it nineties?) there was a sense that the titles ‘Probation Ancillary’ (with its etymological roots in ‘hand-maiden’) and ‘Probation Assistant’ were patronising but the introduction of ‘Probation Service Officers’ did little, in my experience, to reduce the elitism (and inaccuracy) of references to ‘qualified’ and ‘unqualified’ staff.
Here’s my idea: let’s call anyone who is responsible overall for the package of help and controls for someone on probation their ‘probation officer’ irrespective of who employs them and what training they have been given. There is no legal definition of the qualification you need to be an ‘officer of probation’ any more** but law does outline what they can and must do…and ‘probation officer’ will look more sensible at the end of a letter or email while making sense to the person who wants to know who, out all the people they are seeing, is actually their probation officer and the one ultimately responsible for the decisions being made while they are on probation.
Then, how about we call very expert and experienced probation officers, who might coach or supervise others, ‘senior probation officers’ as long as they still undertake work with people on probation. This will leave a title: ‘probation managers’ for those who manage people and activities but are not practitioners.
Following this, we could call just about everyone else working with people on probation on a paid basis ‘probation workers’ – this could include for example: programme tutors, community payback supervisors, case administrators, resettlement officers, health coaches, peer mentors. Those supporting people on probation for no pay could be called ‘probation volunteers’ – an advantage of these two titles being to remove the apparent distinction between colleagues who have been on probation themselves (‘peers’) and those who have not, more accurately reflecting that ‘ex offenders’ are represented in all job roles, not just the least well paid ones.
Even I don’t have the arrogance to suggest job titles for potential Probation Institute members beyond the National Probation Service, CRCs and their tier 2 & 3 providers but it could be that a specialist mental health nurse working with people on probation might want to adopt a title such as ‘probation support nurse’ and there will, of course, be many potential members working in other public, private and voluntary organisations offering specialist support with, for example, accommodation, substance misuse, employment, training and education with people before, during and after periods of probation for whom use of the word ‘probation’ would be too limiting in a job title but who would still see the Probation Institute as a useful organisation to join….after all, you don’t have to have grandchildren to be a Granny.
*2000: ‘Work with Abusers; How do We Talk about ‘Rehabilitation’, Hirst G. in Cox, P. Kershaw, S. & Trotter, J. (eds) Child Sexual Assault: Feminist Perspectives, Palgrave
** Offender Management Act 2007 Part 1 paragraph 9:
“(1)…officer of a provider of probation services means an individual who is for the time being authorised under subsection (2)…
(2) An individual may be authorised to act as an officer of a particular provider of probation services (“the relevant provider”) by –
(a) the Secretary of State; or
(b) a provider of probation services (whether the relevant provider or any other provider) who is authorised to do so by the Secretary of State’