A Rookie Police Instructors Tale!

by Paul Robb


I was fortunate enough to have two short periods working in training during my police service. Even better my experiences were grounded in two very different philosophies of training. My first time around was as a ‘Police Duties Instructor’, my second involvement was in the early days of pretty revolutionary changes.  ‘Instructor’ had been replaced by ‘Trainer’, students were no longer ‘empty vessels’ to be filled with knowledge but individuals with experiences and life skills that should be used to enhance their training. The emphasis was to try and train much more for reality and get recruits to understand that policing was more than simple application of the law.

The change was not without controversy and perhaps with hindsight an incremental approach rather than transformational change would have been less contentious and more readily embraced. I used to be asked frequently as to the merits of each approach. As is so often the case, the reality is somewhere in the middle. The old approach was too rigid, limited in ambition and could be incredibly dull for the student. The model that followed was ambitious put more responsibility on the learner but was far less structured and required a high level of skills for the trainer to deliver against a more complex set of learning outcomes than just factual knowledge. That was a weakness as well as a strength. The best trainers delivered a far superior level of training to recruits, mediocre and below average trainers provided a far worse product than the traditional method. The previous method of teaching by objectives was limited in terms of what it set out to achieve and consequently much easier to achieve a consistent level of basic knowledge.

The ‘traditional’ initial training courses at the regional training centres were highly structured, controlled by the aptly named Central Planning Unit (CPU). The CPU wrote all the lesson notes and the objectives for each one, directed the week in which each tranche of subjects were to be taught, wrote all the practical tests and set the day and time that examinations had to be taken at each of the training centres.  The results from the weekly examinations would be forensically examined to identify any patterns as to wrong answers to specific questions. As each question could be linked directly to specific learning objectives, CPU staff could identify whether there was a problem with a question (large majority got it wrong everywhere), with an instructor (large majority got it right, apart from one class at one training centre) or a training centre (one centre large majority got question wrong). Needless to say, staff at Training Centres were as anxious about the results as the students! All lessons were 50 minutes in duration, the start and finish of a lesson being indicated by a bell across each training centre.

These Centres provided the initial and continuation training for all police officers in England and Wales, with the exception of the Metropolitan Police (always the exception!) who trained at their own training complex at Hendon in North London. BTP officers undertook the initial training at these regional schools but did not return for continuation courses, further probationer training took place at the Force Training School at Tadworth. Eventually the continuation courses at the regional centres were scrapped for a variety of reasons and they focused entirely on delivering the standard initial recruit courses.

 ‘Production line’ training required a standardised form of instruction. To this end the Police Duties Instructors Course was designed to turn out people capable of delivering to deliver this highly structured type of lesson content. Attendance and passing of the course was a pre-requisite for a role in any police training establishment that provided training at a regional or national level in the police service. As a result most force training departments also made it mandatory for their training staff to attend and pass the CPU ‘Police Duties Instructors Course.’

This approach was far from satisfactory because, the majority of police training was not delivered in the format used in recruit training.  There are obvious reasons for this; the wide variety of technical, specialist and complex training police officers have always undertaken is not amenable to the approach required for training recruits in a standardised format. Indeed some training requires the absolute opposite skill set to that prescribed on the national police instructors’ course.

By way of example, whilst undergoing my own training at the CPU, I met a fantastic officer who had been a Royal Navy diver prior to joining the police. Understandably after gaining sufficient experience he became a member of his force diving unit. Such was his reputation, knowledge and skills, which included instructing divers in the Royal Navy he was selected to become a trainer at a regional facility for training police divers. I am not intending to do this officer a disservice when I say that teaching law and procedures was not his forte. He knew enough to do his job as a police constable but not really to impart knowledge to others. He was uncomfortable doing this. Ask him to talk about underwater evidence recovery, working with investigation teams and advising on recovering bodies or items from underwater he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Nevertheless in order to work in training divers, he needed his ‘ticket’ from CPU and thus put himself through a gruelling course of almost three months to learn and develop skills that in the main would add very little value to his ability to be effective in his chosen role.

So it was, in the early 1980’s have been through a ‘mini’ assessment centre process at Tadworth, I was deemed unlikely to embarrass the Force and therefore safe to attend a Home Office course. (I am not suggesting the Force was paranoid about officers failing to do well on national or regional courses but a lot of effort was taken to ‘prepare’ officers prior to attendance on courses where you would be ‘representing’ BTP)!

The course was focused very much on technical skills such as the use of visual aids (no computers, so slides had to be produced by hand for use with an overhead projector), speaking to groups, posing questions to a class and constructing lesson plans, which had to be typed in either duplicate or triplicate, I cannot remember precisely, again in a specific format. Note the key words here, typed and duplicate. This meant the use of carbon paper and typewriters, not word processors or photocopiers. So along with all the normal paraphernalia that has to be taken on long police training courses, a suitcase full of stationary, paper, acetates for slides, special pens for using on slides, stencils, carbon paper and of course a typewriter was also required.

We rookie instructors would then be allocated subjects from the initial training manual to teach to our peers. We would start off with part of a lesson each, then a series of full 50 minute lessons. The class ‘Director of Studies’ would assess your lesson and provide feedback with grading in a set list of competencies.

There was a strict set of rules to follow. Each lesson had to contain the following elements:

  1. Impactive Introduction 1 minutes – I think this was an acknowledgement that after sitting in a classroom for hour after hour of lessons in the same format required something to try and snap recruits out of a stupor
  2. Gestalt 2 minutes – I never really understood why a word from a German theory of psychology was used but essentially it was supposed to be a brief overview of the lesson to come
  3. Stage one 12 minutes of teaching (first x number of objectives which could be found at the start of the relevant lesson notes)
  4. Stage one review 3 minutes – this was a recap of the first 12 minutes but mainly questions to test understanding of the class, this involved the 3’p’ technique – pose (the question) pause (to build tension and make sure everyone is alert thinking they could be asked and spot the ones who look least enthusiastic about answering) and pounce (this generally meant looking away from the poor victim you had selected and then calling upon him or her to answer)
  5. Stage two and review, stage 3 and review.
  6. 2 minute concluding reinforcement and finish.

Prior to the lesson, normally the day before you would provide your Director of Studies with copies of the typed lesson plan. The quality of your lesson plan and adherence to the format would be graded as well as how faithful you were to the plan in front of the class.

The assessor would check that you had clearly followed this format, covered all the objectives set out in the lesson. Used visual aids properly (slides would be checked to ensure all words had been applied with a stencil and the slides had been placed in card fames properly), posed, paused and pounced and that each phase had followed the correct timing. Then there would also be a small section on whether you had bored the backside of everyone or could just about hold the attention of the majority of the class.

After several weeks of these practice lessons the class would be split into small groups and despatched to the regional training centres for two weeks of ‘teaching practice’. For the Home Office force attendees this normally meant going to the regional school to which their forces subscribed. This meant that any officers from say, Kent, Sussex and Surrey would go to the District Training Centre at Ashford. This provided two levels of support, their classmates and the almost certainty that there would be people on the staff from their own forces that they would know.

I was dealt a double blow due to sustaining an ankle injury playing football (not competitively I should add but with nephews aged about 5 to 8 years) which delayed my teaching practice so had none of my peer group for mutual support when my time came. On the plus side, I was sent to Ashford, a training centre where I had completed my own initial training many years previously.

The reader should be in no doubt that this was a very hard course. There was some attrition before we even got to the two week teaching practice, some dropped out (or were advised to) during teaching practice itself and then some failed to get a ‘ticket’ after completing the whole period of teaching practice. On a personal basis I would rank as one of the most arduous courses I ever undertook on the basis of the sheer amount of effort it took to prepare for lessons and produce materials without any of the aids we now take for granted.  The part of the whole process I struggled with most was the part of the lesson that was shortest in duration, the introduction; one minute in which to make an impact.

I was amazed at some of the innovative methods that some of my colleagues went to and cringed at some others. I remember one chap who had been a career detective, mainly on a regional crime squad having the misfortune to be given a practice lesson on minor traffic offences. The remainder of the class were playing the role of recruits, when the door burst open and we were somewhat surprised to see our colleague dressed in full Lollipop man uniform together with Lollipop. Whilst this certainly had an impact, it had very little linkage to the lesson beyond a tenuous link with roads and traffic offences. Perhaps more importantly, valuable time was lost as he extricated himself from the long coat and the Lollipop sign proved a distraction throughout the lesson as it fell to the floor on more than one occasion.

So, if you are still following this saga, hopefully you have some sense of the process and some of the bear traps that lie in wait for the naïve trainee instructor and the weakest of my own many weak spots – impact on introduction.

So I duly turned up at Ashford, not knowing anyone on the staff, no peer group for support and two weeks of make or break to be admitted to the ranks of ‘Police Duties Instructor’. The Instructors worked from a huge open plan office with piles of folders, paper, props and bits of uniform all over the place. Like every office there were extroverts shouting and cracking jokes, very quiet studious types, older wiser heads and enthusiastic younger ones who had all the answers to make the training centre better. However, my overriding memory was how helpful and supportive the vast majority of the staff were. Whether it was because I was on my own, whether it was the look of sheer terror on my face, I do not know, but it was of enormous help to me.

Over the two week period I had a variety of lessons to give, unfortunately a number of the subjects were pretty dry ones that were hard to get hugely enthusiastic about. This brought me eye to eye with my arch nemesis – the impactive introduction. I was sharing my concerns with one or two of my new found instructor support group. I explained that my next lesson was to be ‘Duties of a police officer at the scene of an aircraft’. I was struggling with any idea of an introduction that would spark life into a group of recruits already dulled by the 50 minute segments their lives had come to be dominated by and the bell that gave them temporary respite.

It turned out that help was at hand, what I need was a ‘prop’ and one of the old sweats had just the thing. To my shame I cannot recall the name of this Samaritan, for these purposes we will call him ‘Bob’. Bob was a mature quiet chap from one of the East Anglia forces. He sat at his desk puffing on his pipe (yes it is that long ago) when I approached and asked whether he could help me. He smiled, rose from his desk and from a nearby two door steel cabinet, took out several items, the largest of which was a long piece of hardboard to which was attached two ‘walls’ of Perspex that narrowed to a point at one end. I followed Bob to a long table. He propped one end of the hardboard where the distance between the two Perspex walls was widest up on some books. He then produced a garishly coloured toy tinplate aeroplane which was placed at the highest end. At the lowest point he placed a small stub of candle.

Bob then recounted the back story to be used. A PC on early turn…all quiet suddenly you hear a bang look across to a nearby hill and see a plane has crashed you run towards it and assess the situation from the bottom of the slope and call for assistance. You feel stressed and have a cigarette to calm your nerves (cue light candle representing PC having a fag). At this point Bob produced a small yellow tin of lighter fuel (to represent leaking AVGAS) which he squirted onto the tin flame. Within seconds a flash of flame runs between the plane and the candle.

Thus highlighting that aviation fuel is heavier than air and the need for caution and to remember to take into account wind direction etc.

This prop had everything, a build-up, unusual activity to make the class wonder what was going on, fire (always impressive) and most important of all actually hit a key objective for the lesson – never approach from a downwind direction.

I felt really happy as I now had an impact for my introduction that was totally relevant. No student attending a crashed aircraft would forget this important lesson!

The classrooms were ideally set up for such a demonstration. In front of the instructors desk there was always a long table before the rows of desks at which the recruits sat (no friendly horseshoe arrangement then!).

I entered with my props, I began the tale as per Bob, got some students to ‘lend’ their student notes for me to prop up the piece of board and having lit the candle and sprayed the plane with lighter fuel. Of course the stress makes you feel that seconds are actually minutes and deciding that something had gone wrong lent forward to give another squirt of lighter fuel. This act took place at the very moment ignition occurred.  What I can only describe as a wall of flame separated me from the class, I was aware of several gasps and at least one nervous squeal in the few seconds of this spectacular event. Immediately I could see a number of tiny burnt hairs on the front of my uniform shirt but composed myself and stated with authority “And that’s why you NEVER approach a crashed aircraft from downwind”.

The rest of the lesson was a blur, I think the class were pretty stunned and concerned that I had actually set alight to myself, I suppose technically I had. I saw the Inspector assessing my lesson for the debrief afterwards. He could hardly contain his laughter. He was aware of the prop but had never seen such an extreme demonstration.  Probably out of sympathy he gave me a better than average assessment so the loss of some of my eyebrows seemed a price worth paying.

I will not recount a second prop based experience in that same period of teaching practice which involved a soft apple, a hard apple and a police truncheon in the lesson on ‘Police use of appointments’ but suffice to say that it did not go according to plan.

Despite these setbacks, I managed somehow to pass the course and get my ‘ticket’. This led to an enjoyable two years working at Tadworth and would indirectly lead to me coming back into training several years later, the promotion that was not a promotion, that became a promotion and me being admonished by a Chief Superintendent for knowing I had been promoted before he told me I was promoted! But that, as they say, is another story!



Webmaster’s Note:
Paul Robb QPM is President of the BTPHG; he retired from the force as Assistant Chief Constable.