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Leadership: replacing the Strategic Command Course

Police Oracle speaks to CC Olivia Pinkney who oversaw the final Strategic Command Course about the elements from the system which will be retained

The strategic command course is being replaced next year by a new system designed to increase the number and diversity of officers with leadership potential who can be identified early enough in their careers to be successful.

Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney headed up the course in its final iteration in the current format. She attended the course as a potential senior officer more than 15 years ago and says it has changed fundamentally since that time.

She attended her own course in 2008 and as chief constable of Hampshire has been a syndicate director on it a couple of times before being seconded to lead it during the last months of a long police career.

She says that some “very important elements” of the course will be retained in the new system (see box below) but it has already evolved significantly.

“In terms of policing and what we focus on, our work force, the socio-economic times we live in – there is a world of difference from 15 years ago,” she told Police Oracle.

The residential course is 13 weeks long which CC Pinkney acknowledges is a “long time to be away from your work place.” This will be one of the major changes to the new approach with shorter periods away and more remote learning.

The last course was made up of a five week residential stretch at the College of Policing’s centre at Ryton, four weeks with Police Scotland at Tulliallan and four weeks remote learning.

“The changes that are being formulated for next year strengthen the idea that this is part of people’s Continued Professional Development (CPD)”, she says.

“When I open the course I say to people that they are not going to emerge from this 13 weeks as the finished article. But it is a significant development opportunity on that path.”

For police officers interested in senior command the course has long been a rite of passage: something they had to graduate from in order to reach Commander or ACC rank. That is enshrined in Police Regulations.

But one of the big drivers for change, given the widely acknowledged shortage of senior officer candidates, is the realisation that the service needs to identify a lot more leadership potential and put them through the system.

“Numbers is a big driver,” CC Pinkney says. “Some people, even with notice, cannot do 13 weeks away from home. People who see that as a blocker will not put themselves forward. So we need to make it more accessible.”

The important elements that she is confident will remain from the SCC are creating a network of people who will support senior leaders as they move up the service. There is a “buddy” system in place for senior officers to provide that support made up of people who have a lived experience of leading police forces or other large organisations and know what the challenges and pressures are like.

Support network

“Your network is not just a policing one, “she adds. “The delegates on the course come from other walks of life too.” The most recent course included leaders from the Home Office, Border Force and the Prison Service as well as international delegates.

“It is about expanding people’s minds to other ways of working because it is still the case that most police officers at the executive level have only worked in policing.” She adds that while there is merit in that it can also create ‘blind spots.’

This year’s course had a number of themes. These included police legitimacy, inclusion and viewing politics as an enabler. While the word inclusion might be regarded as soft CC Pinkney says that these days “it is vital to any public service, particularly one that has the powers and responsibilities that police officers do.”

The politics theme was designed so that people on the course could become confident and astute when dealing with “the big P and the little p,” she adds.

CC Pinkney says that more than ever it is vital the service’s leaders show that they are “really confident” in their ability and those they command. “Confidence in policing has been dented in the UK in recent years, as it has across the globe, but they need to keep their heads up because people need to be led by confident, optimistic chiefs,” she adds.

Wellbeing was also a theme given that the role of chief constable is “highly visible, highly accountable and demanding.” Chief officer burn out and mental illness is not new to policing and CC Pinkney says that potential chiefs need to know “how to look after themselves and the people they lead.”

Immersive experience

The course is an “immersive” experience and the content is designed to be high pressured and challenging.

What it doesn’t do is turn people into a Gold Public Order Commander or a PIP 4 investigator. People on the course either come with that accreditation or not and it is very much up to individuals to maintain their CPD. But there are four Masters level assessments on a number of topics that are all undertaken at Ryton.

This includes a scenario which tests whether they can command a “significant event” within their organisation. The exercise has its basis in policing but equally could be a cyber attack on a hospital or some other part of Critical National Infrastructure. It is more about testing executive responsibility “at scale” rather than dealing with the policing nuts and bolts of a firearms incident or a riot.

CC Pinkney says that the course brings in a lot of people who have lived experience of these type of incidents either going well or not so well. “People come and talk under Chatham House rules [in which the conversations have to stay inside the room] so it is very open,” she adds.

There were 54 candidates on the course this year  - 38 officers who were either at the rank of Temporary ACC, chief superintendent and superintendent. There were also three police staff operating just below an executive role within forces and senior officers from three international groupings including the Garda, the Maldives and the Royal Turks and Caicos.

The way people get on the Strategic Command course varies and this will be one of the most significant changes to the system. Currently officers and staff go through the Police National Assessment Centre which will be replaced by a new selection system. People from other agencies or international forces have to be recommended by a senior leader in their field.

Each candidate is also sifted through what CC Pinkney says is an “informal professional conversation”. She says this is not an interview as such but “is really to check whether the person is operating at the right level and will get a lot from the course.”

The course clearly has some ‘touchy feely’ elements but CC Pinkney stresses that it is a tough 13 weeks. “When we got to last Friday there were some very exhausted people but we do want to set people up to succeed,” she says. “Very senior professionals come on this course so there is no spoon feeding.”

Candidates don’t fail the course but CC Pinkney says there have been instances where some have had to re-take certain elements because their first attempt didn’t meet requirements. There are also different levels of achievement so candidates can pass with distinction, merit or a passing grade

“We expect people, exactly as you do in the work place to be collegiate about it," she says. "While we are accountable for our actions we share ideas and expect feedback. So there is some re-doing of things for sure.”

While officers have to pass the course to get to that ACC/Commander level that is not the end of their leadership development until the day they sew on the cc braid to their uniform.

“There is a load of chief officer CPD including formal buddying and mentoring for colleagues as they come through,” says CC Pinkney. “When you become a new chief constable nowadays you get offered a buddy because the personal responsibility associated with being a chief constable is significant.”

That pressure will end for CC Pinkney early next year when she bows out of policing for good after 31 years public service. She says she is not seeking another role within policing and has stated that organisations as important as police forces need "to evolve through new leadership."

How the course will change

The College of Policing has announced that the strategic command course (SCC) and senior police national assessment centre (SPNAC) are being replaced with an executive leadership programme in 2023.

The College says the changes are being made because there is an urgent need to improve the diversity and volume of chief officers. 

It says: "We commissioned an independent review into the support and training available for chief officer development and progression. This involved superintendents, chiefs officers, senior police staff and wider policing stakeholders, to capture their views.

"During the review, we were told that individuals who would make excellent chief officers do not always apply for SPNAC or feel supported to progress. This means we’re losing important talent from our most senior ranks. There was also recognition that potential chief officers self-opt out of the progression pathway. This is usually either due to accessibility challenges or concerns around attending the SPNAC and the SCC."

The updated programme takes place over 12 months. According to CoP the programme “uses a blended learning approach, including short residentials, day events, remote learning and experiential learning in role. This is supported by ongoing assessment.”

According to CoP the new programme will focus on professional development in line with national chief officer leadership standards and role profiles.

Applicants for the programme will need to submit a portfolio of evidence. This replaces the senior police national assessment centre (SPNAC) and should "demonstrate readiness for this next stage of development towards becoming a chief officer."

Portfolios will be assessed by both the candidate’s chief constable and the College of Policing. 

Course content

The first module acts as a development centre. The CoP says it will work with delegates to identify and understand their strengths and development areas “in a supportive and immersive learning environment.”

Delegates will work with a coach throughout the rest of the programme to focus on these areas.

The first cohort of the police executive leadership programme is expected to start in June 2023. 

Candidates wishing to apply for this first cohort must submit their portfolio by the end of March 2023.

Until the launch of the police executive leadership programme in June 2023, candidates for chief constable eligible for appointment will remain  those that have passed both the SPNAC and the SCC. 

Meanwhile, new guidance and standards for chief officer appointments are being developed according to CoP. These will be published alongside the launch of the updated programme.

It says all assistant chief constable/commander vacancies should continue to be advertised in the usual way for the remainder of 2022.

The College will be running a series of information events in January 2023. These are for prospective delegates and all those who support leadership development in force. 

It will also be running an event on Wednesday 1 February, 1:30pm to 4pm for police officers and police staff interested in progressing to chief officer in the next few years.

This online information session will explain how the process will work and help candidates  prepare a portfolio.

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