How British policing could learn a valuable lesson from ‘grit’ tests in America - Dr Alan Billings

What can British policing learn from America’s West Point? Not a lot, you might think. West Point Academy, fifty miles north of New York, is where the United States trains its military elite - 1,500 recruits a year come here for a four-year residential course that is physically, intellectually and emotionally extremely demanding. They work a six-and-a-half-day week, rising early and finishing late.

There is rigorous study and hard physical activity – with everything being scored. Among many other challenging exercises, the cadets take part in ‘ruck marches’. The purpose of carrying heavy rucksacks, under intensive conditions, is to ensure that those who become leaders have the stamina and willpower to persevere and succeed.

This is an expensive way of determining who has leadership potential. The training costs of every drop out are written off.

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Much like ‘SAS – who dares wins’, the drawback of this training is its inability to test for stick-ability other than when cadets fall by the wayside. Cadets might score highly on the intellectual and physical tests, but still drop out.

British policing could learn a valuable lesson. PIC: Simon HulmeBritish policing could learn a valuable lesson. PIC: Simon Hulme
British policing could learn a valuable lesson. PIC: Simon Hulme

Then a psychologist called Angela Lee Duckworth applied her mind to the problem.

She devised a simple self-administered test, taking only few minutes to complete. It consists of twelve questions, with cadets scoring themselves on a scale of 1-5. The questions are similar to: I am not discouraged by setbacks. I finish what I set out to do.

In combination, a cadet’s answers indicate key factors around ‘grit’: their willingness to persevere, to be undeterred by setbacks and adversities, to draw lessons from mistakes and errors, and critically to start over. This is a mind-set that conceptualises and reshapes ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn and move forward. A perspective quite different from how well we might fare in physical or mental tasks. Whether recruits come with this mindset, or not, is the crucial indicator.

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Since being used by the military, these grit tests have been administered to other groups, such as those applying to teach in very challenging schools – with the same record of success predictability.

So, this is where I think British policing could learn a valuable lesson. At the moment, student officers are selected on the basis of what they have achieved to date (mainly in terms of their education and work experience) and face a testing time studying and training on the job. But the drop-out rates, in the first few years, are considerable across the country. More than inefficient, this is an unrecoverable cost to policing, a lost opportunity for many hopeful applicants and a waste of vital public resources. It means that for policing to sustain the uplift in numbers, as set by the government, forces must continue to over recruit.

There is no way of testing in advance whether a potential recruit has stick-ability or not. But the simple grit test would be a proven predictor and could be used as part of the initial pre-selection for recruitment. If it were used, we could drastically cut the number of recruits who fall by the wayside, save a great deal of expense and identify more suitable applicants more often.

This is what I hope British policing can learn from West Point.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.