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Degrees: challenging the ?Old Guard?

The public rightly expects police officers to be educated professionally and trained to the highest standards argues Martin Tangen
Published - 13/07/2021 By - Martin Tangen

There has been a lot of commentary recently in relation to the Police Educational Qualification Framework and the associated entry routes to policing. Much of this commentary has been unhelpful, and in many cases demotivating and off putting to those officers and students undertaking their qualifications both within police services, but also those studying at their own expense at university in preparation to apply to join the service.

Many of the comments are at best somewhat ignorant, but in some cases disingenuous and misleading. They range from the old firm favourites of questioning the relevance of a degree, through to claiming that the necessity for a degree will impact BAME recruitment and recruitment of more mature students.

To set the record straight and to be absolutely clear, the requirement for a degree is quite specific.  Just because you may have a degree in the paranormal, or a degree in English, that alone does not qualify you for entry to the police under the new PEQF framework.  The specific degree you need is a degree in Professional Policing.  Under the Degree Holder Entry Program (DHEP), you are able to convert your current degree by undertaking a course of study (In some cases combined with working as a police officer) in order to meet the requirements. 

Alternatively, you can apply to a police service to enter under their Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship program (PCDA), whereby you work as a police officer and study for the degree at the same time, paid for by the service you have joined.

Finally, you can complete the degree course as an ordinary student (In some cases with options to work as a Special Constable, police volunteer or member of police staff), and once you graduate you are qualified to apply for the role of police officer.  This route is known as the ‘Pre-Join degree’.

Having laid to rest those spurious and unhelpful references to non- policing degrees, let’s move on to some of the rationale behind policing needing degree level education.

Let me start by posing a question.  A friend down at the local pub fancies being a solicitor.  They don’t particularly want to go to university, but they have watched a couple of YouTube videos and are offering to do your conveyancing for your house purchase on the cheap in order to get some practice. Would you let them?

Another offers to sort out your toothache because you can’t get a dental appointment.  I mean, how hard can it be to pull a tooth out?

In both cases I suspect that your answer would be ‘No way’. Rightly, those individuals need to be qualified to practice.

Whilst these examples may be flippant, why should the public expect any less from the individuals who are charged with protecting them and enforcing the law? Police officers have extensive coercive powers that allow them to interfere with the human rights of the populace. So, is it not appropriate that those officers should be educated professionally and trained to the highest standards?

In his report in 2010, Peter Neyroud identifies clearly the rationale for the professionalising of policing. Not surprisingly he identifies democratic accountability, legitimacy, evidence base, national (and international) coherence, capability, competence and cost effectiveness as key requirements for a modern police service. (Neyroud, 2010) His report sets out a clear and cohesive argument for professionalisation and reform.

In the main, major police reform in England and Wales has been the result of events rather than a pre-emptive and planned evolution. The policing scandals and misuse of powers in the late seventies and early eighties, culminating in a series of riots and the subsequent enquiry and report by Lord Scarman (1981) brought about the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The disparity in charging and prosecution of offences across England and Wales brought about the recommendations of the Phillips commission (1981) which led to the formation of the Crown Prosecution Service and the cessation of police led prosecutions. Failures in investigations whereby police did not divulge information which cast doubt upon the guilt of a suspect in criminal trials ultimately led to the introduction of the Criminal Procedures and Investigation Act 1996. The culture and conditions that existed within police training establishments were laid bare by the BBC’s Panorama program in 2003 which resulted in a review of the training methods for police officers.  In each of these cases it was cause and effect that engendered change, rather than natural evolution. Arguably this is a trend which still manifests itself within the police service.

The argument presented by some is that policing is still a ‘craft’, derived from a basis of inherent abilities and ‘common sense’. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, this was no doubt the case. Both Holdaway (1983) and Manning and Holdaway (1979) claimed that policing was a craft and that skills were learnt whilst on the streets.

However, the world has moved on, and educational standards are significantly higher now than in the latter part of the 20th century. In 1953-54 some 5.5% of students attained one A level. Compare this to 2010 – 11 where 39.2% pass two or more A levels or equivalent.  Only 7% of 17 year olds remained in education in 1950 compared with 76% in 2010.  (Bolton 2012). It is no longer sufficient or appropriate to limit training to ‘on the job’. In order to fulfil the Peelian principle oft touted that the police should reflect the public, then it follows that police officers also need to be more highly qualified for their role.

Universities offer a broader platform for students to explore themselves and to build confidence, engage with other people from diverse backgrounds and interests, and to learn and make mistakes in a safe learning environment. In and of itself, university engagement provides ‘life experience’ just as other life choices do. It also provides a ‘break’ in the cycle of ‘cops teaching cops’ in a ‘cop environment’ and thus increasing the potential for indoctrinating continued practice both good and bad into new candidates. Why is this a potentially bad thing?

In 1997 a Royal Commission led by Justice Wood reported on the state of policing in New South Wales, Australia. The report was damming and led to a large number of reforms. Amongst the recommendations was a requirement for police training to be separated out from the police in order to break the continuity in undesirable cultural traits and the cycle of corrupt and bad practice. New South Wales followed the recommendation and implemented a partnership with Charles Stuart University and the requirement to complete a Diploma in Police Practice. The results, as reported in a paper by Chan & Dixon in 2007, were remarkable. Going from a position of being unable to attract recruits, to having a waiting list to join of some 2000 applicants. In addition, the reform coupled with other wider reforms reduced corruption and altered the culture of the police.

In 2003 similar issues were graphically illustrated in the BBC program ‘The Secret Policeman’ here in the UK. Poor culture, racism and potential corruption all laid bare within an entrenched police training environment. The subsequent reforms to the training regime encapsulated within the Initial Police Learning and Development program have gone some way to engendering change, particularly with those Constabularies that engaged with further and higher education. However, the IPLDP was in essence still a post recruitment training course, with much of the same content and emphasis as the National Police Training predecessor, and as such has not evolved enough to provide the grass roots professionalisation recommended by Neyroud.

It is now over 10 years since the Neyroud report. Whilst many of the recommendations have been adopted and implemented, there still persists a stubborn resistance to the notion that police officers need more than a standard education and some ‘common sense’. In those ten years the world has moved at a phenomenal rate. The ‘fad’ of social media that started in 2006-2008 is now a mainstream part of everyday life. The internet and associated World Wide Web has grown exponentially to provide a wealth of services and opportunities that simply did not exist in the early part of the millennium. Technology has advanced at a pace where automated cars and homes are a reality. All this presents opportunities for crime that are more complex and much more challenging to investigate than the run of the mill volume crimes of the 80’s and 90’s.

When presented with this argument, many detractors will say that it does not present a barrier. Any millennial knows how to use a mobile phone, computer, or the internet.  Whilst this may be true, there is a massive chasm between knowing how to use it and legally and legitimately accessing and recovering evidence from the myriad of devices that now permeate our lives. Communication in the modern age more often than not involves social media, streaming services, messaging services and chat forums. Officers are expected to navigate this world with due regard to human rights, legislation, codes of practice and local policies that often vary between individual constabularies. The expectations of the public are at an all time high, with easy access to information and ‘knowledge’ meaning they feel much more empowered to challenge officers in the execution of their duties. In addition, every action or decision made by an officer in this modern era is open to scrutiny at a very public level through easy access to news media, social media and video services.

The UK prior to 2020 lagged far behind other developed nations in terms of the number of hours required to train a police officer ( 2020), with a requirement of just over 2,000 hours.  Compare this to Finland and Norway at closer to 5,000 hours, or Portugal and Azerbaijan at over 10,000 hours. ‘So what?’ I hear you say. Well compare crime rates in Norway with those in England, or consider that per citizen, Finland has one of the highest rates of private fire arms ownership, yet shootings and police use of firearms are a rarity. You can rightly argue that there are other factors that play a part, but one of the key aspects is the highly trained, highly respected and highly regarded police services of those countries, all of whom require their officers to have a higher education qualification.

Far from acting as a barrier, the requirement for a degree can make (and in the case of New South Wales has made) policing a far more attractive proposition across the board.   A study by Stone & Tuffin (2000), conducted with individuals from a variety of BAME backgrounds, identified that presenting policing as a career (profession) rather than a job would encourage more BAME candidates to join the police.

“Respondents in Bangladeshi, black, Indian and Pakistani groups remarked on the appeal of television adverts for Army recruitment. The focus on intellectual abilities and the challenge to the individual, as well as using actors from minority ethnic communities, were viewed positively.”

Universities are highly successful at attracting students from all walks of life including BAME, LGBTQ+ and mature applicants via their ‘success for all’ programmes. These students will in may cases follow through with their aspirations and once graduated will apply to join the police, thus adding to the level of diversity and community participation within the service.

Perhaps it is time for the ‘old guard’ to embrace change and work with the system instead of fighting against it.

Martin Tangen is a retired police officer with 26 years service. He joined as a mature entrant having previously completed 12 years service in the Royal Air Force and completed higher education qualifications whilst serving in the police. He is now the course leader and senior lecturer for a licensed 'Pre-join' degree course in Professional Policing at undergraduate level at Nottingham Trent University.

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