What Else Have You Done?

Let me be clear from the start. I am not an academic, I do not like formalised studying, I do not have a degree and I have resisted at least three opportunities to study for one at someone else’s expense. The main reason being that I simply haven’t seen the point in obtaining one. This doesn’t mean I am “anti-degree” nor does it mean that I do not recognise the many benefits of higher education and lifelong learning.

Over the last few days it has even been suggested that I resent students because they are fast-tracked for promotion ahead of me. Given that I made the rank of Inspector in seven years and was accepted on to the High Potential Development Scheme as a sergeant without a degree then I steadfastly refute that accusation.

In actual fact, I have never entered into debate on a subject where I have felt more spoken down to than the one I have been trying to have over the last few days.

The announcement at the Excellence In Policing conference this week that two academics from the College of Policing are advocating that all police officers should be degree educated / qualified has led to some quite polarised opinion. Their view is that all constables should be at Batchelor level and all superintendents at Masters level. It is not clear from my limited viewing (I was not at this conference) as to whether they are saying it should be a pre-entry requirement or whether it is something a probationary officer must study towards during their first two years.

The primary driver for this seems to be that it will “professionalise” the police service.

I am against the idea for a variety of reasons and particularly if it is suggested that it become a pre-requirement of entry into the service.

This would force the cost of training onto the applicant. I believe that it would narrow the field of diversity and that it would put off a great many people from applying at a time when the police service is actively looking to represent it’s communities more accurately. The starting pay of a police officer is now so low that, if you have to pay for a degree to join, it would probably be at the bottom end of the career choices available. Opportunities for progression would be limited as there are now three potential points of entry each with limited space. You could join as a graduate entry police officer – “basic entry”, apply for “fast track” where you will have to stand out amongst other graduates or you could apply for direct entry if you were a graduate with experience elsewhere. There simply isn’t enough room at the top for all the ambitious people and for those who might reasonably expect that a degree might allow them some progression.

There has been an argument that it will elevate the standing of the police. To this I ask, in whose eyes? I’m not really convinced that the public give two hoots about whether the officer dealing with their job has a first from Cambridge, a 2:1 from Swansea or whether they barely managed to scrape A-levels like I did. Of course they expect the officer to have been fully trained and they expect them to be courteous, sympathetic, empathetic, professional, competent and diligent but I certainly don’t recall it ever being an issue as to whether I have a degree being raised before. I also do not believe these qualities are uniquely or especially endowed upon or  learned by graduates.

If you ever dare to wade into the murky swamp of the comments section of any online news article on a police story you will inevitably stumble on many comments deriding the “high flying graduates” in policing which are usually followed by a demand for “proper coppers” – something I am actually yet to see defined. Unenlightened as these comments are they suggest that people don’t really care and possibly take the opposite view.

Some have said it will raise the standing of the job in the eyes of politicians. I’m not sure about that either. I can’t see it leading to them saying they had better increase the pay and improve the conditions of officers. The government seem to be targeting the public sector as a whole. There isn’t a profession who isn’t in some way having their pay, pension or conditions of service attacked be they lawyers, doctors or teachers.

Admittedly, Sir Tom Winsor has referred to policing as mostly “blue collar” work and that is nonsense. Even if we believe it is true then ensuring that all officers have degrees won’t change the nature of the job they do so we will just have a whole bunch of degree educated officers doing “blue collar” work. So what’s the point? The job is what it is – educating the staff won’t change the role they are expected to perform. If it is blue-collar work then why do you need a degree to do it?

Others have talked of how the techniques and art of studying for a degree will hugely assist how police officers go about their work. They have talked about how critical peer review will lead to best practice and how an analytical approach will help solve wicked problems. All of which I am sure is well and good but it requires time and officers do not have time. Nor, I suspect, will many of them have the inclination. Arguably this kind of approach needs to be centred at the College of Policing itself given that they will have the staff with the expertise and it is they who will determine what does and doesn’t work. The police force is effectively being cut in strength by half. Officers barely have time to complete the paperwork they need after every job let alone have time to sit and think deeply.

There are many roles in policing where this approach is advantageous and beneficial but I do not believe that it is an absolute requirement across the board. Furthermore, so much of policing is prescribed by law, rigid policy and Approved Professional Practice (determined by the College of Policing) that free thinking isn’t always necessary or even approved of. Add to that the inspection and investigation regime of the HMIC and IPCC who discourage any deviation from prescribed practices that one wonders exactly where these graduate officers would be free to use their new found skills.

Evidenced Based Practice is likely to restrict that thinking further as officers will increasingly be told exactly how,when and where to do their job.

If the starting point for constables is Batchelors and Superintendent is Masters then upon what level should we insist for officers within the National Police Chiefs Council bracket?

There are probably three jumps in terms of scale of role within policing. The first is from sergeant to inspector where you suddenly find that the nature of the role is very different and carries far more weight. The next is the jump to Superintendent which is the same multiplied by a factor of ten. The next is the leap to Assistant Chief Constable which is frankly on another planet altogether. If we are expecting our superintendents to be masters qualified to assist with that step then should we expect NPCC level officers to have at least a doctorate and maybe Chiefs should be professors? As one commentator said to me via DM “should we expect the Commissioner to be elevated to the rank of ‘Demi-God’?” Whilst this appears tongue in cheek it does ask a serious question.

Others have talked about the fact that a degree shows the ability to learn and have talked about continuous learning and development. My fear with this idea is that once you have obtained the degree as a compulsory part of the probationary period or prior to joining then what happens next? Where do you go from there? More degrees? Who pays? After 20 years in the rank of constable, holding a degree earned 18 years ago,what relevance does this still hold?

Police training is, sadly, shocking. It has been shocking for years and, after initial training, relies almost exclusively on teach-yourself computer packages which officers must complete. This is largely achieved by mashing buttons until the programme is over. This has become so obvious that the package now sends you a warning telling you it has noticed that you appear to be pressing the buttons too quickly. Very little is absorbed.

Obviously a degree would, or at least should, be better than that but there is evidence from the Southern Hemisphere to suggest that even when delivered properly and as part of a probationary period it all goes out of the window the moment the officer hits the streets. Whether they become overwhelmed by the culture they walk into or whether the degree is actually useless are yet to be determined.

There is no doubt that the police must improve how it trains and supports its staff but not just in the early years. Continual Professional Development is, as far as I can see it, something that just seems to happen for a few selected people. Not once, in ten years, has anyone sat me down and tried to help me develop or asked me where I want to go in the future. Actually, that isn’t true – it has happened twice – but those offers have come from senior officers in other forces who sensed my overall frustration through my tweets and blogs. I am grateful to them for their time and offers. I am not alone here. The sense of frustration is palpable and no plaque on the wall saying “Investors In People” makes it any better. Officers need to be supported in terms of their career development and, indeed, managing their expectations throughout their service not just in the first two years.

I have a very strong view point on all of this and it is not surprising that those who see it differently have an equally strong but opposite view. What has surprised me is the nature of the debate over the last few days. For the first time, I have been left feeling like some kind of under educated grunt who couldn’t possibly understand how a degree can make all the difference. It hasn’t been the public at large who have made me feel like this but the very people who believe I should be aspiring to their level of formal qualification.

One commentator suggested that, as a graduate, they could easily do my job but I couldn’t possibly do theirs. Whatever it is. Tell me that at 4:30am when I have to decide whether to deploy my firearms officers to carry out a hard stop and enforced extraction on a vehicle which might be carrying a suspected armed criminal.

I’ve been doing this job a long time. I have worked with many officers with and without degrees. I honestly don’t believe that the degree has made one jot of difference as to whether they make good officers or not. Nor have I ever come across a situation where I have thought “Blimey, a degree would really have helped me out there.” Some of the best superintendents I have ever known have joined as cadets and have no degree. Equally I have worked with many successful and talented officers who received higher education. It’s a broad mix and the service is better for it. A degree which everybody must achieve will, in my opinion, force everyone down the same path and produce clones.

The most confusing argument I have come across is that it will help the officer when they leave. Why would you sell something apparently for the betterment of the service on the basis that it has its most value when the officer leaves? It will apparently make them more employable. If everyone has one then surely the opposite is true?

“I have a degree in policing” says applicant

“Indeed you do,” says prospective employer “the same as all the other people leaving the police. What else have you done?”

And it is this, “what else have you done” upon which my entire view rests. There are any number of avenues to pursue in policing. You could remain a constable, seek promotion, be a detective, ride horses, be a dog handler, firearms officer, roads policing officer or neighbourhood officer. Within each of those roles are separate levels of supervision and specialism. You become an expert in your particular field and it is these skills, experiences and abilities which make you the officer (or potential future external job applicant) you become.

A degree in policing would be undertaken before any of this, everyone would have one and actually it is likely to be long forgotten as the officer begins to develop into their specialist role – where there would be no degree.

I am not against higher or formal education at all. I admire anyone who has the time, desire and ability to do it. For me, the answer isn’t to insist that everyone has BSc after their name at the beginning of a career. The answer is to properly train and support them then develop them with formal qualifications in their specialist roles as their career diversifies and takes its own path.

Ultimately – when I leave the service – my future employment isn’t about what I achieved in the late 90’s. It will be about what I have done since, my experiences, how well trained I was in any given role and how good I was at it. If I have specialised to such an extent that I have gone on to study it further and be recognised with educational honours and formal qualifications then so be it. For me – it is here that the College of Policing should be focussing it’s attention whilst improving basic training and ditching NCALT.

Have I ever felt encouraged to undertake further study for the betterment of myself or the service? No. Quite the opposite and many commentators have said they have taken this path at their own expense only to find the job pays no heed and pays no acknowledgement. Some have said it has actually worsened their relationship with colleagues. We have to get past that and I am pleased that at least some people have shared more positive experiences with me. But they appear to be minority. And that is wrong.

As it stands – do I feel professional already, based on my service and experiences to date but without a formal degree to show the world?

I wear a uniform; I am proud and honoured to wear it; I am confident in my rank and role and when I deal with something I always strive to leave it in a far better position than I found it. I am asked for and freely give my advice based on two decades of police service. I joined to serve the public and help people and that is what I think I achieve. When I turn up at the scene of something do people look to me to sort it out, take control and resolve it? Have I ever been asked what my formal qualifications are or does the uniform I wear and the rank I hold actually imply that I know what I’m doing? Does the action I take support and reinforce that view? Do I make a difference?

The best comment I have read so far which enforces my view is that policing remains the last public sector service that a 40 year old single mum, with few qualifications, can still join and make a difference. I am more proud of that than anything else.

I am absolutely not saying that a degree might not make me better or different but ….

Do I feel like a professional without a degree?

Yeah – pretty much.



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4 responses to “What Else Have You Done?”

  1. Peter Kilburn says :

    I joined the police in 1967 with two GCE ‘O’ levels (Maths and English) but by the time I left the service in 1998 I had a BA and an MA. Neither made any significant impact on my ability to do the job in an effective way.
    The Nursing in NHS Hospitals has come under criticism in recent years because of a perceived lack of care on the part of nurses- the most common cause assigned to this problem has been that the need to have a degree to be a nurse has prevented a good many of those most able to nurse in a caring and compassionate way from joining the profession.
    My fear is that if the police insist on a degree as the minimum entry qualification the same situation will arise and many of those best able to perform the duties of a police officer will be prevented from joining

  2. brilloman says :

    It often seems that people skills and common sense cannot be taught. There is often an inverse correlation between these skills and academics ability. There is still, in education a chasm between academic study and vocational ‘ courses ‘ with the latter being looked down on by academic snobbery, there is a professional skills shortage in this country already and because of it.
    The Peelian principle is about ‘being the people ‘ or something similar, having a degree is not representative of the people.
    What of all the very successful people who have no formal qualification, Richard Branson has only this week blogged on the subject of degrees and sees them as kind of pointless except for the socialising element.
    Degrees should be for following an interest and TBH now that the collective intelligence on humankind is more or less at our fingertips 24/7 the only thing left is experience. Hands on, have a go get it wrong a and learn from it, experience.
    Stream of conscience and rant over.
    Thank you

  3. brilloman says :

    See today’s BBC news on how it is ‘ soft skills ‘ that puts the girls ahead at a push school according to their head. That striving for academic success is no longer fit for purpose.
    Nothing further.

  4. Concerned Citizen says :

    But you, obviously, have a double-digit IQ.

    Whereas those with degrees and fast-tracked to detective, do not.

    It is that simple………

    Get over it, woodentop,

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