The brains in blue

Pass the Home Office test and be a city's peace-keeper. Milly Jenkins on the police elite

There was a time when joining the police force was seen as a waste for someone with a degree. Why bother going to university if you want to be a bobby? But over the past five years the force has become one of the biggest graduate recruiters in the country, with an average intake of 600 a year. One in five of new police officers now has a degree.

Few come in on the police graduate scheme. It was set up in the late 1960s with the aim of attracting as many graduates as possible. But now that they are flocking to sign up, the focus of the scheme has changed. It has been renamed the Accelerated Promotion Scheme for Graduates and aims to hand-pick an elite for fast-track promotion.

Getting on the scheme is tough. Last year there were nearly 2,000 applicants and only 26 of them were offered places, although 400 more were given jobs as standard entrants. There is no quota, only a set standard. Superintendent John Crosse, graduate liaison officer, says that finding graduates who meet that standard is increasingly difficult. "Although we're taking more and more graduates as standard entrants, it's becoming harder to tease out the few good ones, as most other graduate recruiters are finding," he says. "One in 20 can't pass our basic recruitment tests which are designed to weed out people with minimal qualifications, a few GCSEs maybe.

"We're looking for people with the potential to move quickly into supervisory, then management and leadership roles. They've got to have a wide perspective on life and the role of policing in society. But at the same time, they need the common sense, practical skills of a bobby on the beat."

Like everyone else joining the force, those on the scheme have to do two years on the beat. But they are marked out for fast-track promotion from the beginning. "The scheme gives graduates a very rapid move through the first two ranks," Mr Crosse says. "We expect them to be sergeants within about three to five years, which means supervising a team of maybe 10 people, with an operational function. They should then be inspectors within four or six years of joining, which is quick. An inspector may be running a small part of a city. We then hope they'll become chief inspectors two years later. But there are no guarantees."

Candidates for accelerated promotion choose the constabulary they wish to join and are put through the normal selection procedures of that force. Those thought suitable for the scheme are then referred to the Home Office, which does a gruelling four-day assessment, testing leadership and management skills, with up to three interviews with top police officers and external examiners. Although the kind of high-flyers who would get to the top of a company are sought, candidates have to show commitment to public service.

"It seems to make very little difference where candidates have been to university and what they've studied, although a lot of people do come from law and criminology," Mr Crosse says. An increasing number of successful applicants are career-changers in their 30s. "These people bring considerable experience to the service. Other employers would offer premium salaries to attract them. We can't do that, but we can offer accelerated promotion."

Sonia Sangha joined the scheme at the age of 21, after graduating in politics and sociology at Southampton. She has already done her two years as a PC and has passed the sergeant's exams. She will be 24 when she takes up her new title later this year. The toughest aspect of the scheme, she says, is revising for exams. "The pressure is immense because if you don't pass first time you're off the scheme and they're hard exams with a lot of theory to learn. Doing an eight-hour day and then coming home and studying was a shock after university."

Elizabeth Neville is another of the scheme's success stories. She joined in the early 1970s and has just been made chief constable of Wiltshire, only the second woman to reach that rank. She says that it is hard to tell if she would have got as far as a standard entrant.

"In theory, if you have the potential you are going to get through anyway, whether you're on the scheme or not. But it does help to have it flagged up in the early days. It gives you a leg up and marks you out for attention. It has certainly benefited me"n

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