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5 February 2007

This, lads, is a fish knife

Brendan O'Neill on the Potential Officer Development Course

By Brendan O'Neill

What do you think someone needs in order to be an officer in the British army? Grit, no doubt, and determination, plus the ability to lead rank-and-file soldiers both in the barracks and on the battlefield. What about an appreciation of the theatre, and some knowledge of fine wines?

At the Army School of Education in Worthy Down, Hampshire, aspiring officers are given a crash course in the arts and social etiquette, among other things. The Potential Officer Development Course (PODC) is designed for serving soldiers, most of them under the age of 30, who are considered “officer material”. Between 50 and 60 men and women attend the course each year. To prepare for the Army Officer Selection Board – which decides whether or not Joe Soldier might cut it as an officer – the soldiers are put through an 11-week course designed to broaden their cultural horizons and improve their “communication skills”.

Apparently, one way to improve your chance of selection is to make sure you know your stuff about the opera or ballet. Part of the PODC involves soldiers putting on their glad rags and visiting the West End. “The course is about developing soldiers’ self-confidence, cultural interests, interpersonal and problem-solving skills,” says Major Dave Crome, commanding officer of the Army School of Education. Crome insists that it isn’t about turning them into toffs – it’s about analytical skills. “We’re saying, ‘Here is an experience you’re not used to. Now let’s talk about it, and discuss what was good and what was bad.'”

Past PODC attendees think differently. One former soldier describes the course as “basically cultural development”: “They send you away on training days/weekends . . . to learn the ins and outs of what fork goes where and how to talk like a constipated fruit gargler.” Another says it is about turning ordinary soldiers into “orrficers”, but thinks the course is great fun.

Major Eric Joyce oversaw the PODC courses in the early Nineties, but has since left the army and is now MP for Falkirk. He says the course is the army’s stab at positive discrimination – an attempt to ensure that, in a more open and democratic military machine, any aspirant serving soldier has as much chance of becoming an officer as the Eton-educated son of a general.

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“There were experimental elements on the course, like the wine-tasting,” Joyce says. “And some of the trips to the theatre didn’t work. Pinter, for example, was a bit much.” He says there used to be advice on how to cut cheese (“You shouldn’t cut off the ‘nose’, you should cut it from the back”), but such outdated lessons came to be seen as odd and have since been wound down.

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Crome won’t be drawn on how much etiquette, or knife-and-fork know-how, is involved in the current course. “When we cover things along those lines, it is really about teaching accepted norms of behaviour in various contexts,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure that people are comfortable in a variety of environments – just as someone who works in Tesco is told how to behave on the shop floor.”