Warrior Selection in Wiltshire
PUBLISHED: 12:44 23 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:56 20 February 2013
For the last 62 years, the village of Westbury in Wiltshire has been home to Army Officer Selection. Jess Bate returns to see how the process works
Pass the rope Number 3. Pass the rope! Those enduring phrases that stick in ones memory. Driving back through the formidable gates at Leighton House in Westbury, that haunting feeling came over me again. The last time I was here, I was a teenager and hoping to convince the Army I was worthy of going to Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and gaining a commission. I was feverishly trying to remember my current affairs and military knowledge, not to mention the best method for crossing a wide gap without touching the floor (using nothing more than a barrel, a rope and a plank). However, walking round the beautiful grounds now, I still felt as if someone was about to berate me for not wearing my fetching green overalls and numbered bib.
Leighton House was built in 1800 by Thomas Henry Phipps but was purchased in 1888 by the then-Managing Director of Laverton Mill, WH Laverton. He enlarged the main house, built the stable block, the bridge over the road and a large private theatre. By 1921, Leighton House had become Victoria College, but only remained open for 15 years. Destined to become a Roman Catholic Training College, it was instead requisitioned and later bought by the War Department.
During the Second World War, Leighton Park (as it was known by then), became a convalescent and medical centre before being established as the War Office selection board in 1949, where it has remained ever since.
Now manned by 40 military personnel and an equal number of civilian staff, Westbury deals with:
Briefing Boards (a 24-hour taster of the Main Board)
Main Boards (three and a half days of assessment and testing)
Specialist Boards for 16-year old Army scholars, Welbeck Sixth Form Defence College applicants, Territorial Army (TA) Boards (since 2008), and Transfer Boards (Regular to TA or vice-versa)
Professionally Qualified Officer Boards (for lawyers, doctors, chaplains, nurses, etc)
Cadet Force Commission Boards.
We are not looking for future generals, says the Chief of Staff of the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB), Lieutenant Colonel Carol Prosser. We are looking for platoon commanders post-Sandhurst. Thats what we keep in mind finding the innate qualities that Sandhurst will train up to command soldiers on operations.
Carol has, for the last two years, been helping to run this establishment, and puts over 1,000 candidates through the rigours of the Main Board during the course of a single year. Interestingly, 40% of people who come to the initial Briefing Board do not return to Main Board. The vast majority of those not returning have made their own decision, rather than the Army suggesting they are not suitable.
The staff at AOSB very much see the Briefing Board as an initial filter, an introduction to Army life, fitness and standards, and they believe it reduces the shock of capture of Main Board for most candidates. It also acts as a recruitment tool, assisting with the wider reputation of the British Army, and is clearly as much of an opportunity for an individual to look at the Army, as it is for the Army to look at them.
Carol has several Group Leaders, Captains/Majors in rank, who each run a syndicate of eight candidates. Captain Michael Fletcher, 30, is one of the Group Leaders and requested to be posted to AOSB to have a change from regimental duty. Having returned from Afghanistan last year, he is now enjoying being near the coast (he loves to surf) and in a village community. I think Westbury has fantastically friendly people. Every time I go to the town, people are very receptive about what we do here and are very interested.
As well as the Michael level, there are also several other tiers of assessing eyes who watch and form an opinion on every person attending each course. A Vice President will, for example, see the candidates curriculum vitae and references, but a Group Leader will not. Therefore, during the staff discussion at the end of each course, every assessor has a different perspective on each individual being tested in separate situations, ensuring 100% fairness is, above all, being achieved.
It is mind-blowing when you consider the number of multi-dimensional tests each candidate undergoes including physical, psychometric, general knowledge, current affairs, group discussions, leaderless tasks, planning exercises, command tasks, individual obstacle courses, mini-lectures and so on
By far the most honest and open part of the whole course is the mini-lecture at the end, says Carol. Candidates have almost concluded their tests and the most frank revelations come flooding out, in some cases, perhaps a little too early!
Watching the blue, red and yellow teams hurdle over the obstacles in a race, it is fascinating to see how the groups bond and develop and communicate. Translating this into capability in a war zone, it is easy to understand why Leighton House has to be so rigorous in its testing. If they pass, candidates now only have 5 years (instead of 7) in which to start their officer training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The Academy is also reducing the age of entry from 29 to 26 years old. And watch out, men!"AOSB figures prove that females always outperform males at Leighton House! This, they believe, is due to the females having a higher level of certainty, commitment and training before attending the course.
Leaving Westbury this time, I was reminiscing about which command tasks our syndicate had found hardest and why. A world away from my last departure when I could think of little else other than the letter from AOSB, due a few days later, telling me of my success or failure and therefore changing the course my life would take.
Fundamentally, the officer selection process has not changed in over 60 years. People are not telling us we are getting it wrong so there is no requirement to inherently change the manner in which we choose our future leaders, Carol remarks. And she has a point. It has been tweaked but it is good to see that the essential core values (not to mention those overalls and coloured bibs) remain solidly underpinning the assessment process.
For more information on how to join the British Army as an officer, go to army.mod.uk/join
Jess Bate was a British Army officer for seven years before settling in Wiltshire.