Promotion Exams

by Bob Butcher

Promotion examinations played a part in our quest for professionalism so they deserve at least a mention in our historical records although many readers will have had personal experience of them. These notes concern what might be referred to as a transitional phase that linked the ― companies’ police‖ era to that of the modern BTP.

‘Companies’ Police

Promotion examinations for the LNER Police were, I believe, introduced in 1946. Set and marked in-house, they consisted of one paper containing, if I remember correctly, educational or general knowledge questions as well as those on police subjects.

There were two pass marks, the lower one for promotion to sergeant, and the higher to inspector. Any officer out of the then one year probationary period could sit for them so that immediate post-war entrants could qualify for inspector with very little service. In fact some were promoted sergeant.

I do not know what arrangements applied to the other companies, although I think that seniority may have played its part in some cases. However, following the formation of the British Transport Commission Police Force in 1949, standard promotion regulations requiring qualifying exams were introduced.

The British Transport Commission Police Force

There were two separate examinations: the Constable to Sergeant and the Sergeant to Inspector. These were known as the Technical (i.e. police duties) Exams and were set and marked within the Force. However before being eligible to take them, the candidate had first to pass the Civil Service Commission Educational Examination, 2nd or 1st class as appropriate.

The Technical Exam consisted of morning and afternoon papers and each offered the candidate a choice of questions to attempt. However, Question 1 on each – the Administration Question – was compulsorily. Failure to reach the total pass mark meant that the whole exam had to be re-taken on another occasion.

These arrangements were similar to those applicable to the Metropolitan Police although their technical exams were competitive, not qualifying. Moreover the subjects to be covered were more precisely stipulated than in our case and were based solely on the Instruction Book issued to each officer and on their General Orders, bound copies of which were readily available at all stations. It is true that we had the Manual but that was out of date almost as soon as it was printed and never amended. In any case it contained little explanation and no instructions. Furthermore unlike the Met GO’s which were really standing orders, our GO’s were an almost random mixture of operational and routine matters and as their filing was haphazard the candidate often found it difficult to get to the relevant individual order and might well find that it was missing, having been abstracted by a previous candidate.

This particular problem was not solved until the publication of our Standing Orders but that was after the introduction of the National Promotion Examinations and the all-important Manual of Guidance, and, incidentally, after the compiler had retired.

The Mets also benefitted from the practice of the marking panel publishing comments about the way in which questions had in general been answered. Thus the Met candidate had a clearer idea than our officers of what questions to expect and how to answer them. For example, a friend of mine swotting for the exam back in the Fifties wasted a lot of time studying the Visiting Forces Act, a statute with which our exam panel were unlikely to be familiar.

In later years I was a regular member of the examination panel and can say that whatever may have been said about some of the questions, the panel members always tried to be positive and give the candidate as fair a chance as possible consistent with maintaining a reasonable standard. In fact if a candidate was just a few marks short, the answers would be gone through again in an effort to squeeze out a few more marks. I must admit that on at least one occasion when I couldn’t find the extra mark or two, I just added them in any case. I hope that the candidate, whoever he or she was, turned out to an efficient supervisor.

That Educational Hurdle

Many officers found the educational exam a greater hurdle than the Technical one. Arithmetic was, and is, my weak spot so that when the new regulations appeared and I saw what was required for the paper on that subject, I was dismayed and thought that I would end my career as a constable. Then, when a colleague whom I did not much like passed, I realised that someday I might have to take orders from him if I didn’t get down to some serious study. Fortunately I was helped by several better educated colleagues and I did indeed pass. However, I think that I benefitted from the practice of the examiners awarding marks for the correct method even if the actual answer was wrong. I must say that not once during my subsequent service did I have to decide how much gold leaf 1/365th of an inch thick could be obtained from a cube of gold one inch square. For that matter I don’t recall that the knowledge of why the Yellow Sea was so called helped me in my work.

A friend, an experienced Detective Sergeant, finally passed his 1st Class Educational after several attempts and the burning of much midnight oil. Hardly had the ink dried on the orders publishing that fact, than the Home Office announced that in future, educational exams would be dispensed with and we followed suit! He retired as Detective Chief Inspector.

I don’t know what the situation was in the provincial forces before the introduction of National Exams but the Home Office Police Regulations probably required promotion exams but left the application of them to the individual forces. I was told that one small borough force arranged for its candidates to sit the promotion examinations of a neighbouring large city force. After marking, that force sent the borough a list of their candidates with the marks gained in descending order. The borough chief constable then went down the list until he came to the officer he intended promoting and then set the pass mark accordingly. Sounds dodgy but in a small force like his, he must have known the true worth of his men and women.


Extract from the February 2013 edition of History Lines (No. 42)