by Dr Emma Williams, Director of Research and Strategic Partnerships, The Centre for Policing Research and Learning (CPRL) at The Open University and Jennifer Norman, Head of Policing Organisation and Practice at The Open University.
The Police Education Qualification Framework (AKA degree gate) remains a contentious subject. Recent commentary around the ‘degree debate’ was triggered by the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s request in November 2022 for the College of Policing (CoP) to consider a fourth ‘non-degree’ route for new police recruits. This blog isn’t intended to provide an opinion on what a fourth route should look like, or in fact whether there should be a change. What we will do here is reflect on our involvement in the police education, research and learning sphere over several years. We’ve worked in operational and strategic policing environments as researchers. We have spent a large part of our careers as policing academics delivering policing degrees to serving officers/staff and conducted several research projects related to the theme of professionalisation in policing. It is this that the PEQF originally sought to achieve.
Some of the criticisms of the PEQF relate to the academic nature of the degree level entry and the lack of relevance to operational roles. We would argue, having taught serving police officers, that the theoretical understanding from policing research and scholarship, combined with the practical experience of officers working in the field is where the learning really happens.
Some of the themes covered in the PEQF curriculum provide the reasons and justifications for why elements of police work are so essential. For example, the role of community police officers, community engagement and the impact this has on police legitimacy, trust, and confidence. In addition, police officers often encounter individuals that present a number of complex issues related to vulnerability. The input of certain academic evidence can help officers structure the way they engage with these members of the community in inclusive and fair ways. Therefore, the key to making academic knowledge relevant, is to situate it in the context of what the police know and do every day.
Sometimes these positive aspects of the PEQF get lost in binary conversations and considerations about what academic level police education should be. Additionally, at a time when policing is trying to be more efficient and effective, focusing on what learning, education and research can bring to policing in positive way, can facilitate more objective discussions about the role of education in policing.
Themes that have arisen from the work we’ve done
Professionalism is linked to knowledge and officers feeling empowered, able and equipped to do their job. Research indicates that officers feel their decision-making is enhanced from the knowledge input, it can make them feel more confident to problem solve with partner agencies, and those with degree level education have an increased sense of professionalism.
Research conducted in specialist areas of the police also shows links to welfare, personal efficacy, and personal accomplishment in the role. Similarly with new recruits, national surveys demonstrate that those who have completed the PEQF feel more equipped to do their role compared to those cohorts of trainees who have completed the Initial Police Learning and Development Programme (IPLDP).
One of the distinct differences between the IPLDP and the PEQF is the level of learning delivered. The IPLDP requires officers to demonstrate their ability to ‘follow instructions’ at level 3. The PEQF develops officers’ skills at level 6, to think critically about problems they face and encourages them to use innovative practices beyond following instructions. Given the diverse landscape within which policing operates, it is essential that officers have the scope to move beyond a template version of policing practice and deliver context led policing which recognises difference and individual needs.
We have also recognised from a phased project we have undertaken for the Uplift Programme, that the support on the ground for both the new recruits and those constables who tutor them is inconsistent, can lack strategic support and vision, and often the tutors are not given the development they need to be effective in post. The learning time expected from organisations is often not guaranteed, which causes tension between officers trying to complete their academic study and the organisational need for them to be operational. Additionally, the research has found repetition in assessment processes which can cause frustration and confusion about where to prioritise their time. National surveys have found that this burden can have negative implications for the wellbeing of apprentices.
The original aim of the PEQF was intended to include supporting professional training and education for serving officers and police staff through the process of the recognition of prior experiential learning (RPEL). In our opinion, this work remains undeveloped at this time but is crucial for equity and accessibility to continued professional development (CPD). Furthermore, if forces are given the allowance to decide whether they run the PEQF locally, or remain with the IPLDP there is a risk that a two-tiered police service will prevail. Placing the learning entirely back to local delivery is likely to put significant strain on learning and development departments and limits both serving officers and staffs CPD. Furthermore, it will compromise the specialist courses required in some areas of policing such as investigating rape and sexual offences. Working with HEIs in a truly collaborative way with the police has been identified in some PEQF partnerships. These approaches should be harnessed and rather than focusing on the negative aspect of this field, the good practices in operation should be shared and developed further.
Ultimately, whilst the findings of this research and other pieces of work have been conflated here, we hope that they feed into ways forward for improving the police education landscape for both the individual officers and the police organisations themselves.
It seems ironic that we operate in an environment that puts onus on evidence led practice, efficiency, and the correct deployment of resources and yet with reference to the Home Secretary’s announcement, it seems equipping officers with the skills to understand research and evidence and how to apply it in practice is being undermined. Developing the skills needed to draw on different forms of knowledge from research and other formal / informal sources arguably aids the ability to think widely and objectively about different problems. After all policing is about people. It is about risk and harm. If we don’t equip officers with this kind of knowledge from the start, we maybe doing them a disservice when they are on the frontline.