“Believe in yourself and support others”

Essex Police T/Inspector Ben Forbes talks about his challenges and achievements as a dyslexic officer

I would like to open this blog by saying it is my hope and aim that this snippet of my personal journey will help share some unique insights into the challenges, positives and key people who have supported me throughout this experience.

Ben Forbes

A little bit about me: I was born and raised in East London as an only child. Throughout early years, I didn’t engage with learning as I struggled with the concept of learning altogether. It didn’t matter what support my family or teachers would implement for me – I would disengage, I struggled with the traditional learning methods and this led me to go down the deviance route (a term I now fully understand and appreciate).

My mother fought – and I mean fought – with my school and the local authority to get me assessed to identify if I had a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD). As a deprived working class woman herself, she had no education but she just knew I had something hidden that was preventing me from reaching my full potential.

It was only when I hit Year Nine in secondary school that I was placed in an ‘alternative education programme’, which saw me leave the classroom environment and work in a watersports centre at the Royal Victoria Dock Watersport Centre. I swiftly worked my way up and become a national senior coach in kayak and canoeing, and passing my national assessors’ qualification in powerboating. This was my passion, the purpose I was ever striving to find, and this was my teachable moment that moved me from my deviance path onto a successful, respectful career pathway.

Joining policing
Fast forward eight years and I had joined the Metropolitan Police after two attempts at their National Assessment Centre. At this point, I still had not had any assessment or indication that I had a SpLD, so the first time I failed was due to my English and maths exercises.

I underwent my dedicated initial recruit training at Hendon and subsequently at Bethnal Green regional centre and passed with flying colours on every assessment. I was nominated for best student and came a very close second, the notion of being nominated meant more than the actual award for me!

Four years later, I am a member of Trident in Specialist Operations & Crime Command. I really wanted to branch out to develop myself further as a specialist to holistically understand the complexities around young people and gang association, with a clear ambition to understand what works, what has been done and what is missing to effectively divert, prevent and tackle gang crime as a whole.

I had the resources in Trident to work with some of the best leaders on gang diversion, Jack Rowlands being my manager at the time, now a Chief Inspector in London’s Violence Reduction unit. Jack was not just a boss to me, he was an inspiration, someone who had an idea many years ago and worked to overcome barriers, preconceptions or issues in general of bringing change into policing and succeeded. This programme was Divert, the best custody diversion programme I honestly have ever come across, but that will be for another blog!

The hook: Canterbury Centre for Policing Research Conference
We now enter 2017 and as a fan of engaging on Twitter to better improve our relations with both community groups and professionals, I saw a tweet from Dr Emma Williams who worked at Canterbury Christ Church University, it was titled Evidence Mission Impossible Conference. This interested me and I looked into the promotion of this conference further and then noticed a close friend, mentor and fantastic police leader, then Superintendent Paul Clements, had signed up and put a call for police officers to attend if available to help with their development.

I knew Paul as he was a current MPS Superintendent and I had worked for him on some new and exciting gang prevention and diversion work in Waltham Forest at the time. I remember saying to myself ‘Really? You haven’t even done a GCSE‘, however thanks to some motivational discussions with Paul, I took the leap, signed up and it was the best decision I ever took. For brevity – I attended, was inspired, was supported by guest speakers across policing and academic and as soon as I got home, I wanted to sign up to the in-service policing degree run by Canterbury Christ Church University!

My university journey
The first challenge was finding financial support to undergo this ambition of mine, which was to overcome the barrier of formal education and to achieve something I was never given the opportunity to do at a younger age, an educational qualification.

The timing was just right, and the College of Policing Bursary had just opened. I did not know how to apply for a bursary really as this was not something I had experience with before, so I went with what I knew, spoke from the heart and explained in my own words why I wanted to do this and what I would do if successful. To my sheer amazement, I was awarded funding for this course which I can’t describe the emotions that went through me when I found out. No words will explain how grateful I am for the College of Policing but also the volunteer bursary assessors across policing and academia who read my application and believed in me.

Fast forward a year and I arrived in Canterbury. What a steep learning curve it was travelling home with the information on what was expected from me now I was a university student! I went home motivated but extremely anxious, worried with a general feeling of being overwhelmed. I remember speaking to my incredible Programme Director at the time, Jenny Norman, and she openly asked about my history with education and asked if I had ever been assessed for possible SpLD. I said no due to the sheer cost of around £450-£600 and she mentioned the university offered a support programme funding 70% of the cost of the assessment. I found this amazing and thanks to that support, I was formally diagnosed with dyslexia, a life changing diagnosis for me!

Jenny swiftly celebrated this diagnosis with me and it will stay with me forever. I remember being told, walking into the weekend programme all drained, and Jenny just gave me a big cuddle and said ‘This will be a lifeline for you now Ben, well bloody done for taking the leap’. After a few weeks, Jenny implemented a specific learning plan and adjustments for me and three years later (this year!), I formally graduated with a First-Class BSc in Policing (Hons) – wow!

Key reflections
I would like to round this blog up by providing you with my personal key challenges and the key reflections on what helped me overcome them, which in my humble view, should be reviewed by every leader in policing to support those with a Specific Learning Difficulty:

  • Due to my lack of education, and this can be applied to any situation which has resulted in those not being academically experienced (age, lack of opportunity, disability etc…), I was not familiar with what I call ‘academic speech’. The thus, therefore, references and critical analysis. I had to learn and adjust how I wrote in essays and how I presented my work through the numerous exercises.
  • Academia and Policing need to both understand our barriers, challenges and possible differences, whilst recognising that there are no right or wrongs and in order to be effective and grow as a profession, we both need each other.
  • Time management is my second challenge. I was studying and was mid-way through my degree with a lively family (new born baby), I was also studying for promotion exams, going through the promotion processes, all whilst transferring from the MPS to Essex Police.  So I struggled to find time for everything. Added to this, my dyslexia meant I had to plan well in advance and needed additional time in almost everything due to my study plans.

I went from one force with a good study leave policy to one which unfortunately did not have one. This meant that I had additional stresses, but thanks to being open, speaking to Jenny (Programme Director) and refocusing, I was able to manage this well within time. My plea for the College and certainly Chief Officers is to value external professional development and enable those officers/staff to harness that by suitable study leave policies.

I started writing this piece as a ‘micro-blog’ which then developed into a full blog! However I hope it encourages anyone who has concerns, doubts, worries or interests about engaging in academia.  This should give some hope that it is inclusive.  It will help you grow both in respects of your operational expertise as well as allowing you to grow and develop academically.

Believe in yourself and support others. ∎

This blog was originally written for the College of Policing Academic Support Network – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author