Much has been made – quite rightly – of the Government’s ambition to recruit and train 20,000 extra police officers and progress towards the target has been impressive. Every time I visit a local police station here in Surrey I meet enthusiastic young people in their smart new uniforms. They are eager to head back onto the streets and keen to learn from those around them, and I am impressed by their duty to protecting the public and their energy.
Despite years of negative stories about policing, they to a person possess a sterling commitment to public service. That young people are still attracted to policing in their thousands is a testament to a generation who are often written off as apathetic or material.
What makes a good police officer? Crimes and those who commit them have seen significant changes in recent decades, but the core features of what it takes to be a good officer have not changed all that much. Empathy, good communication skills – including an ability to listen as well as talk – honesty and integrity, a cool head in a crisis. These are the skills common to all good officers, of every rank, and none of that is controversial.
But where I do depart from the now-accepted ‘wisdom’ is that I don’t believe that those wishing to enter policing must have, or should as quickly as possible in their training, an academic degree.
It is perfectly possible to be an excellent – or outstanding – police officer without being a member of the 50 percent who now attend university. After two law degrees, I learnt PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the legislative framework behind much of policing powers) at bar school. Yet officers who left school at 16 would run rings around me in their understanding of the law.
Most of those I studied with could only dream of being as effective as officers I’ve witnessed dealing with violent situations or domestic abuse call-outs. And it is a truth known universally that there are some skills and knowledge that you just can’t teach.
I also worry about what we are asking of new recruits: to do the job of being a neighbourhood officer while also studying for a degree. For most young people, they will cope. Many are living at home with mum and dad, and we’ve all had periods in our careers where our social life has had to temporarily take the back seat.
But at a time when policing is desperately trying to look more like the public we protect, with everything from ethnic, age and ‘neuro-diversity’ supposedly important, what does it say to those with young families or other caring responsibilities about what we truly value in our team? What does it say to those leaving the army without a degree who have so much they can contribute to policing?
My concern isn’t just for policing, but for the message we are sending more widely. The more we see traditional, non-degree professions (policing, nursing, childcare) insist upon a higher academic qualification, the more it cements in public’s mind that a degree is the only way. Our young people get the natural impression that vocational qualifications and careers are not worthwhile.
Ministers can go on until they’re blue in the face about the importance of parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. Yet that won’t make a blind bit of difference if those across the Cabinet table are insisting a degree is the only way route to a successful career as such a common or garden career as policing.
Thankfully, we are seeing some forces starting to push back against the College of Policing’s idea of a ‘professional’ police service. They did not suggest abandoning the degree route, since it will be the best one for some applicants. Instead, they want to return to a process that allows for differing entry pathways, to reflect the diversity of people we want to see in policing. This should be the norm, not the exception.
Policing careers offer so much and are enormously varied. From dog handlers to digital fraud teams, armed response to family liaison, it isn’t one size fits all. So nor should its entry requirements be. A very wise chief constable said to me recently that yes, he wanted architects, but what he really needed were brickies. We are in danger of having great plans and no one to build them.
Tony Blair’s 1999 target of wanting to send half of all school leavers to university was wrong then, and it is wrong now. Successive Conservative ministers have done a fantastic job of raising the level of further education. They have ensured it is better funded, with more options and taken more seriously. They are, along with the young people who enter FE, to be applauded and encouraged.
It is fundamentally Tory to want to see everyone achieve their potential, but not to tell them how to do it. That is the case for a career in policing as much as any other.