Why promotion to sergeant should be based on merit not memory

Leadership coach and former ACC Brian Langston argues for the scrapping of OSPRE Part 1 as an outmoded memory test.

I passed my Sergeants’ exam in 1982 immediately after the end of my probation. Coming in the top 200 candidates nationally in those days entitled you to an interview for the prestigious ‘Special Course’ for accelerated promotion- which I failed. Although, as there was no feedback whatsoever on my development needs, I have no idea how far I missed it by, but I wasn’t invited back! My abiding memory of the process was not having a better answer for the ACC who asked me who my favourite composer was. I jest not, that when I replied ‘Mozart’ he responded with ‘Wrong!’

I took the hint and sought promotion through the traditional route and in 1985 got promoted with 5 years’ service which was more unusual then than it is now and shortly afterwards passed the Inspectors’ exam. In the quarter of a century which followed, despite more new legislation being passed than at any time in the history of the service, I was never required to pass another police law exam despite somehow managing to reach the rank of ACC.

In the intervening years I had the privilege to work with some very talented individuals who displayed outstanding operational leadership qualities and could easily have achieved senior rank- apart from one thing. They couldn’t pass OSPRE Part 1.

Their disappointment was matched only with my frustration as I saw candidates who in some cases had been Acting Sergeant for years with outstanding results, fail time and time again. As well as being personally humiliating for them, it made no business sense at all as there was complete dearth of Acting candidates who were through Part 1 and so regardless of their exam result, they returned back to their post to do a job they were allegedly not qualified to do. An abuse if ever there was one.

Poor education was not the reason for their failure, as well as many bright and articulate members of my team, including several graduates, officers with other professional qualifications and at least one old Etonian could not get through. OSPRE Part 1 was and remains nothing more than a test of memory. Some of us are (or were) blessed with a good short-term memory for everyday situations like the power of arrest for someone caught breaking the leg of a squirrel. (A question which genuinely came up in the year I took it). However if you’d asked me a fortnight after the exam, I wouldn’t have remembered a fraction of the useless knowledge I had been cramming for months. If I needed to know anything I took the radical step of looking it up.

And the point of this stroll down memory lane? In this digital age of instant knowledge at the end of a Smartphone, why on earth does the service perpetuate the need to memorise obscure legislation to demonstrate leadership potential. OSPRE Part 1 is a snapshot in time and serves no useful purpose in determining who will make a good Sergeant.

The knowledge exam is a redundant barrier to entry and could be scrapped tomorrow without any discernible impact on supervision.

OSPRE Part 1 has done a disservice to a generation of officers by squandering a wealth of talent, and failing to capitalise on the unfulfilled potential that exists on the front line. This obsolete requirement has been a stumbling block for way too many highly capable officers and represents yet another institutional barrier to cognitive diversity in the service.

The role of Sergeant remains a pivotally important rank in the service. In these volatile, uncertain and changing times we need more than ever to get the best people for the job into operational supervisory roles. Those who think differently and act differently and who can inspire those around them to achieve their peak performance. Supervisors who have acquired practical skills on the streets and understand how to motivate a team to deliver a high quality service to the community.

OSPRE Part 1 is long overdue for retirement and the College of Policing needs to act, before the potential of the next generation is cut off at source. Advancement should be based on merit not memory. As Einstein once put it: ” Never memorise something you can look up”.

Brian Langston QPM LLb(Hons) MBA is a writer, coach and consultant on leadership and diversity. He was formerly Assistant Chief Constable (Operations) for Thames Valley Police and is now the Executive Director of the iLeadership Academy.

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