Police training is not the didactic regime that some might believe. In fact, it follows the same humane and facilitating principles as most education. Pat Leon reports from the Harrogate police training centre
On a day when the Harrogate state of alert was black, it was fitting that police trainers based there were discussing race relations. A colour-coded alert sign is a permanent fixture on doors of police and Home Office buildings throughout the country, and training centres are no exception. So while police officers might think a stint at residential school is a welcome break from trouble on the beat, the truth is, the force is always with them.
The setting of the National Police Training Centre at Harrogate near the Yorkshire Dales seems far removed from crime in the city. Located in a big Victorian house in the village of Pannal Ash, the college is one of several scattered about the country. Harrogate NPT is devoted to teaching police personnel to become trainers.
Jonathan Smith, director of studies, says: "Few people think of police training as education. It's a difference in terminology. We use the term training, academics use the term teaching. There are differences, but there are lots of similarities. We are in a strange position, not a university, but not strictly a business. It feels like we bridge the gap between the two."
The centre has recently gained accreditation from Leeds Metropolitan University. Students who complete the basic trainers' course receive not only a national police trainers' certificate and six units of an NVQ Level 3, but also, with a little extra work, a certificate in higher education (training and development).
There is also talk that police trainers might be eligible for membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching but, unlike nurse and midwife trainers, only on an individual basis. It was these connections that led Smith to address the ILT conference in York last June on the similarity of methods used to train police trainers and other teachers.
"Many people think police training is didactic and militaristic. It is based more on humane and facilitating principles," he says. The concentration on equal opportunities, particularly in the light of the McPherson inquiry into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, is one example. Besides being built into basic trainer training, Harrogate runs a ten-day residential course on community and race relations for qualified trainers.
Smith is one of a growing number of civilians who teach police. A former mechanical engineer, he studied management at Cranfield University before joining Outward Bound, Wales. He went on to do voluntary work with people with learning difficulties in Germany and Austria before joining the University of Hertfordshire's staff development department and simultaneously taking a masters in human resource management. For the past three years, he has trained police trainers at Harrogate.
He sees little difference between the learning process for police and for other people. The training is based on the philosophy that adults learn by doing, that an informal environment works best and that learning flourishes in a non-judgemental environment.
"You can't be a teacher without self-awareness, so the course is as much about personal development as anything else," he says.
The men and women who attend the Harrogate courses are generally experienced officers or civilian trainers or have been selected to become trainers at one of the 43 constabularies of England and Wales. The courses taught at Harrogate include access, refresher, health and fitness, safety, presentation skills and evaluation. All have a residential component.
David Tasker, from Suffolk constabulary, is studying community and race relations. He is the only plainclothes officer of the 20 or so attending. "When you are on a course like this, you start seeing everything you read in the papers in a different way. It makes you think and exchange ideas," he says. "But it's hard. We have to go back to our forces and there can be resistance, especially from some of the old stalwarts. This is not just a training problem. We have to be accountable to the communities we live in."
It is day three of his course, and everyone is on first-name terms. Civilian course leader Stuart Simpson explains the approach so far. "In the first session we asked officers what motivated them to come. The reason: we want them to want to be here; not to be told to be here. We are not going to stand them up to be shot down."
The group, all white and all but Tasker uniformed, is sitting in a circle debating institutional racism with an outside speaker, Harnek Panasar from a Leeds' racial harassment project. The men and women are dissecting a statement on what constitutes institutional racism. They identify racism in police recruitment, assessment, the uniform and even work rotas based on the Christian calendar.
One officer, a female student, gives an example: "The canteen at Brouche doesn't cater for people's different diets, so students end up bringing their own food. Then they are told they are not allowed to eat in their room."
"There's an attitude that 'it's our country'," says her colleague.
"The problem with community relations," says Nadia, "is that the more aware of racism the public is, the higher the number of incidents reported."
Harnek says this has to be welcomed because it means police are communicating. But communication is not enough. "Can you train people to be compassionate?" he asks.
Simpson replies that the one constant of police training is public order exercises, and compassion is not a part of that. This hits the heart of the police's identity crisis: what is their role? Force or service.
"The problem is that just like teachers who now do playground duty, we have been de-professionalised. The public think police are there for everything. We are taking on roles that weren't intended. How many of us have answered a 999 call to get a cat out of a tree?" asks another officer.
In a prefabricated block away from the main house, two civilian course leaders are talking to officers taking the trainers' development programme. The programme was launched in 1996 and involves a 50-hour distance-learning pack, a two-day workshop, a six-week residential school and a week's briefing at the training department in which they will work. Finally, officers do about four weeks of assessed teaching practice.
The students, who include an officer from the Atlantic island of St Helena, assume this morning's session is to talk about how much they have gleaned from the distance-learning pack. They have worked in teams of three on questions about the pack.
What they discover on reporting back, however, is that they are being asked to recognise group dynamics and different learning styles to which they have already been introduced. They have to talk about how they found their companions - were they activists, reflectors, theorists or pragmatists? It is obvious that a few officers find this too touchy-feely, but they quickly recognise that that this is what they will have to watch for in their work as trainers.
Trainer Peta Ackerley says: "You have to recognise what the group is. What is going onI and adjust. It is a trainer's responsibility to meet the group halfway."
One officer complains: "The trouble is that it is different here than in the workplace. There are no disruptive influences - no guerrillas or terrorists."
A bizarre image springs to mind - police officers as terrorists in the classroom. But then it seems odd that, despite the peace and tranquillity of Pannal Ash, that day the nation was on black alert.