Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Monday, 16 November 2009

Just what is officer material?

Line of new officers
The numbers wanting to be officers have increased

Prince William has done it. Prince Harry has done it. But how does the British Army go about selecting its officers, and what do you need to make the cut? Finlo Rohrer spent a day taking part in the selection process.

There are a few preconceptions surrounding the picking of Army officers.

Briefing: Two-day event where candidates take mental aptitude tests and get familiar with selection process
Board: Three-and-a-half day selection process
Split in groups of 6-8
Candidates can be up to 28
Some recommended candidates drawn from ranks
Separate scheme for long-serving soldiers

There is one stereotype that suggests the 44 weeks of training at Sandhurst has a whiff of the ethos and privations of public school. There are some who might assume that the higher echelons of the British Army were dominated by former public school boys.

The Army has been attempting to counter that stereotype - and others - by inviting journalists to witness how the selection process is conducted.

As I'm facing a 7ft bright green wall, I can't help but feel that it presents a similar obstacle whatever your educational background.

"Cushion yourself using your foot and use your elbows to drag yourself up," counsels the officer supervising the exercise.

This is one of the obstacles used in the selection process at the Army's dedicated site at Westbury in Wiltshire. Candidates must also jump two high hurdles, complete a long jump, and hop up barred steps with a green-painted log. Along with a couple of other challenges, the obstacle course must be completed in three minutes.

Prince Harry
Prince Harry is one of the notable candidates to have been selected

This is the selection that both Princes William and Harry had to pass.

The candidates must be able to do 44 press-ups in two minutes, or 21 for a female candidate. And then it's 50 sit-ups for both sexes.

Male candidates have to do 10.2 on a shuttle run beep test, equivalent to running about a mile-and-a-half in 10.5 minutes. The female candidates have to do 8.1, equivalent to the same distance in 13 minutes.

The physical challenges don't seem excessively taxing for a reasonably fit twentysomething, particularly as the young hopefuls know what they will have to do in advance and have been able to train.

In this age of obesity, officers working on the course hint at a slight decline in the physical fitness of the average candidate. But with an increase in the numbers of candidates because of the vagaries of the job market in the downturn, there is no pressure to make the physical fitness tests any easier.

Complete obstacle course in three minutes
44 press-ups in two minutes for men, 21 for women
50 sit-ups for both sexes
Beep test: 10.2 for men, 8.1 for women

If these physical tests seem fairly straightforward, the lengthy mental aptitude tests that are undergone by the candidates first visit to Westbury, are much more daunting.

The tests feature verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning in a format familiar to anyone who has ever taken an IQ test.

But the real meat of the testing process - for the layman observer at least - is what the officers call "leaderless" and "command tasks".

Leaderless tasks form a series of Crystal Maze-style exercises where a "burden" - an oil drum or ammo box full of sand - must be transferred between two points without touching the ground. The "aids" might be planks, poles, and ropes.

Rope swing obstacle
The candidates must complete an obstacle course in three minutes

Even here in the vigorous physical environs of officer selection there is evidence of the 21st Century health and safety paranoia. The candidates are given a list jokingly referred to as the Darwinian Rules.

"Candidates may not be thrown" is perhaps the most amusing of these rules.

In the cacophony of voices discussing the task, I find it hard to concentrate on the very act of moving planks made slippy by mud and rain. A simple reef knot appears hard under time pressure. While we do the task we are closely observed for our abilities and attitude.

Are there people who have good ideas but lack the self-confidence to put them across to a group of more boisterous people? Are there people who seem naturally able to take charge of the group in a sympathetic manner? Are there brash, loud and insensitive candidates?

The dynamic in the groups of six to eight candidates is important. The groups are also tested in a planning exercise, where they are each given a theoretical challenge and then grilled on it.

Female trainee officer
Female candidates are one change the modern Army has made

Walking around the squat brick buildings at Westbury are a steady stream of 18 to 28-year-old candidates wearing suits, smart shoes and numbered bibs. While they are here they get used to being referred to as "49" or "37" during exercises, rather than by their name.

The emphasis - the officers in charge of selection say - is on finding rounded people. But anyone who followed the most recent series of TV's The Apprentice may have their doubts on that count. In a cast of grating candidates for a dream job with Sir Alan Sugar, perhaps the most irritating was Ben Clarke, a trainee stockbroker who rarely missed a chance to remind his cohorts he had been awarded a "scholarship for Sandhurst". Clarke eventually admitted he had failed to take up the opportunity.

In pursuit of this roundedness, the Westbury candidates are taken through group discussions about current affairs.

And they hear a lot of talk about the ethos of being an officer. The words "values and standards" and "potential" are much repeated by the officers conducting the selection.

Charles Heyman, editor of Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, and familiar with selection processes from his own time in the Army in the 1960s and 1970s, says there has been a shift in emphasis.

"The actual selection process itself doesn't appear to have changed that much. What really seems to have changed is the sort of people who are joining the army or going for selection. There is no doubt whatsoever that there is a much broader mix of society going forward for the officer corps.

A group of journalists complete a leaderless task
Finlo Rohrer, second left, with fellow journalists, tries to figure out one of the 'leaderless tasks'

"People do exaggerate. The place isn't stuffed full of princes and dukes."

As the Army has moved to concentrating on graduates, coming from a "good school" has been superseded by the notionally more egalitarian idea of coming from a "good university".

"The reality of Army officers is the majority have always come from a middle class background," says Heyman. "The middle class background has changed. Forty or 50 years ago a lot of people from a middle class background came through a public school, [probably] minor public schools. Now [there are] quite a lot of very, very good comprehensives.

"Now the majority are graduates it is the university that matters. The Army is a fair reflection of society."

Send us your comments using the form below.

I believe the Israeli method of officer candidacy is far superior. All soldiers start at the very bottom and attend leadership courses based on their performance and reports from their superiors initially to lead at an NCO level and when they have proved themselves competent there they earn a commission. Everyone below them respects them because they have endured the months of operations in poor conditions and the officers have a better understanding of the impact their decisions will have on their men having been there themselves. I would rather be led by somebody who started from the bottom and earned their way up through experience than a squeaky clean old Etonian with three A-Levels. Many commentators agree that it is the strength of our NCOs that holds our army together and gets the squaddies through the tougher times, give them the promotions and pay rises, they've earned it!
Chris, Hull

Having attended the AOSB (Army Officer Selection Board) and passed out as a Scholar I can attest to the difficulty of the selection process. Many of the candidates that would first appear to be natural officer material (eg extremely fit or intelligent) fail due to having the incorrect mindset. It is not about how well you do on the tasks, it is about the potential that you display - I remember being told by an officer at Westbury that they were not looking for leaders but were instead looking for someone who had the potential to lead once trained.

As for the social demographic, I have noticed a large proportion of the candidates were from a higher social class than myself - that said, many of them failed while those from poorer backgrounds passed with ease. While candidates may seem "snobby", those who pass are generally well balanced people who may or may not come from the higher classes and who may or may not be privately educated. It is no longer about your education but is instead about the skill and potential that you possess.
Will, Gloucester

As a private in the Army I tried to become an officer. Maybe I wasn't good enough as I didn't get through. But I had an unusually high pass mark on the intelligence tests, was one of the fittest there, did well on the command tasks and mixed well with the other candidates. But I also come from a working class background in Wales. My main examiner at Officer Selection was as posh as posh can be, and I got the impression that he was continuously looking down his nose at me. I didn't get the chance to become an Officer, but became a corporal in the end, so must have had some leadership potential.

Since leaving the Army, I've got a degree, and head up a team of IT professionals in the city. Makes me wonder if I wasn't good enough because I wasn't posh enough.
Jim, London

It would be a true reflection of society, if university selection processes were a reflection of society. In reality, we've seen that Oxbridge selection processes favour public school applicants, not least because many public schools coach their students in the Oxbridge selection process. I would also suggest that the social spread of candidates, varies greatly from regiment to regiment.
Nick, Richmond

Why easier physical tests for woman? In a combat zone, surely you all need to be able to do the same? Is equality really politically correct quotas in camouflage?
Ray, London

I went to Sandhurst in 1990 on the Women's Standard Course expecting it to be brimming with "Sloane Rangers" - I was so wrong! I had been to a comprehensive school and completed my degree in a college of HE and I fitted in very well. There was a great mix of girls, many of them are still my friends today. I don't think that represents the Army as a whole though, my first posting was with an infantry unit where all the officers had come from specific public schools and I thought I'd landed on another planet - I very nearly left.
Lisa Smith, Pembrokeshire

Peter, Notts. I'm sure that all the Platoon, Company and Battalion Commanders will be grateful for your description of their duties, or rather lack of them. I am also interested to note that you have invented an entirely new Rank, a WSO -1 (Sgt Major). We need more military experts.
Carl, London

As someone who is heading to my Army Officer Selection Board in two weeks, I think you've made it look a bit easier than it actually is. Leaderless command tasks with seven other candidates all trying to impose themselves onto the officer watching. Along with tough interview questions about Army mottos and themes, and having a general knowledge that is designed to be able to answer any tough question you prospective platoon may ask. The Army are looking for the potential, but when you walk around Westbury in a suit, you damn near feel like the real thing.
Dave H, Bristol

I passed the selection board, RCB as it was then known, in 2000. From an Army family, I had been to a top private school and an average university. I took up my place at RMAS in January 2002. I was on the last Rowallan Company course, designed to develop leadership skills prior to the Commissioning course proper. The attrition rate on this course was high, and many promising young candidates, including myself were injured and subsequently discharged on medical grounds. A career I had worked towards from a very young age was now abruptly halted, and I have spent 10 years, fairly unsuccessfully trying to fill the void. I am not the only one to be let down by the system.
RE, Southampton

The physical standards listed in this piece are low, they are entry requirements to RMAS. To by a successful officer you'd need around double the number quoted in an Army unit to get by. Lastly, I don't believe the old stereotypes are even thought of these days. In Afghanistan there is no time for the "upper class twit of the year". Officers in 2009 are very bright and mentally quick soldiers with a good education. Upbringing has little to do with it.
Matt Edwards, Bristol

The article doesn't mention the preponderance of ex-public school boy officers in "good" regiments like the Guards or Armoured Regiments which still have the cachet of previously being cavalry. The army is still very much divided by class. Why didn't Harry have a spell in one of the trades like RE or one of the "ordinary" regiments?
Bob, Perth

I know the army is trying to change, however the best officers are ones who have came through the ranks and have an idea about reality and life. There are still too many officers straight from uni who are only worried about where their next promotion is coming from.
Lucy, Borders

The majority of junior officers have very little "importance" in the Army. Their job is to listen and learn and develop the skills needed to become senior officers. The most important ranks in the army are Sgt and WSO-1 (Sgt Major). They actually command the troops in battle. The senior officers (major and above) are effectively "senior management". At best a new 2nd Lt is a trainee manager.
Peter, Notts

A certain young man of my acquaintance was neither a graduate, attended a private school or a "very, very good comprehensive". He passed through the selection process at the first attempt and passed out from Sandhurst in April this year. What he does have is drive, determination, self belief and strength of character. Fortunately for him these characteristics were nurtured in the home environment. Unfortunately, these characteristics are not now encouraged in the general education system.
Anne Bond, Plymouth

My son just being out of Sandhurst for just over a year. I can confirm the local intake demographic has change considerably. There still are the rich kids and sons of wealthy Arabs. But the majority of young officers being commissioned now have a lot more in common and really identify with the men they will command.
Paul Burrows, Reading

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