The first ex-Police Head of House in Oxbridge, former Assistant Commissioner Helen King, talks to Richard Lofthouse about the Police and returning to St Anne’s College.

Helen King at St Anne's College

If you look at St Anne’s on a map, it’s an eclectic scramble of buildings bounded by the Woodstock and Banbury Roads to the west and east respectively, capped to the north by Victorian houses along Bevington Road. It’s an immense site and second only to St Catherine’s in size, measured by student numbers.

Entering from the Woodstock main entrance, I am taken across to Hartland House, the lofty, classical modern design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Built in 1937, it looks out wonderfully over the main quadrangle, giving the Principal a magisterial view from a balcony on the first floor.

Balcony at St Anne's College.The balcony doors are wide open with a warm breeze blowing in, sunshine bringing out the warmth of the original parquet floor. Cup of tea in hand, I ask Helen King (St Anne’s, 1983) if she is tempted at all to exhort the students sprawling across the lawn back into the library, from her new balcony, which in a tricky way is – I suppose – a way of sounding her out on what sort of Principal she intends to be.

‘Well no, I wouldn’t do that – it delights me to see the students enjoying late Spring weather on a Friday afternoon. In fact my first major initiative is called ‘Be well do well’, and it expresses my aspiration for all students and staff here, to achieve their goals but also be healthy mentally and physically as well, living the lives they want to.’ She continues, ‘Time at university is about academic achievements, but it’s also about what you’re learning about yourself, about other people, about the world; about what motivates you and what keeps you happy – my position on all this is that you can’t do really well unless you are well.’

King quickly adds that the impetus for this new direction is rooted in what she has learned about the student experience in 2017, compared to her memory of going up to St Anne’s in 1983, not least through the experience of her two daughters aged 19 and 22.

‘Wellbeing,’ she notes, ‘has become a huge issue in Policing…and is different from welfare.’ Welfare in this sense is addressing problems when they arise. St Anne’s has lots of support available including a Dean of Welfare and a college nurse. ‘But,’ says King, ‘…we want to get upstream, encouraging and supporting everyone to take steps to keep themselves well and seek support early before any problems become too serious.’

On the Monday of First Week of her first term in post (having officially begun on April 24, 2017), King hosted guest speaker Clare Griffiths, the seven-medal wheel-chair basketball Paralympian. Griffiths spoke to Stanners (as St Anne’s students are colloquially known) about ‘how to prepare to perform at your best when it matters most.’

Looking back at her own student years, King reflects, ‘Probably a lot of us weren’t in the best of mental states… but we didn’t have a name for what we were feeling so it didn’t get expressed.’

‘Of course Oxford remains recognizable as Oxford, but schools are much more focused today on exams’, she observes. ‘Kids who have been under immense pressure to score top points jump through all the hoops to get here, and then attend Oxford with £50,000 debt over their heads and a jobs market which is scarier than it was for my generation. Not always correctly, students now assume that the only thing that dictates their career choice is their degree class.’ She continues, ‘These are talented, conscientious youngsters. You put them together and you get tensions and anxieties as well as rich intellectual and social interactions.’

Meanwhile St Anne’s itself has expanded, with at least four buildings unfamiliar to King when she arrived, the latest being the new Library and Academic Centre completed last year. ‘I’ve had to re-orient myself physically.’

Her memory of being an undergraduate is blurred. King had been encouraged to study science at school and had taken A-Levels in double mathematics, physics and chemistry. ‘But I didn’t want to study science further and was accepted by Oxford to study PPE.’ In retrospect, she thinks she would have benefitted from a study skills session – ‘I threw myself into a wide range of activities but never remember being taught how to write an essay – probably, I could have used a bit more focus.’

The beginning of her return to Oxford was predecessor Tim Gardam’s invitation to her to address the 2016 Founder’s Dinner, which is attended not only by benefactors but by final year students. ‘Tim asked me to talk to the students, so I spoke about choosing a career – do something that matters! What you take from Oxford is so much more than your degree. That was my message.’ Without realizing it, King had triggered a process that would see her elected Principal a few months later.

A noteworthy aspect of that process was King’s own sense that her election was improbable. This says something about Oxford and something about Policing in Britain, but what exactly?

Former Assistant Commissioner Helen King

‘I suppose society has a stereotype of the Police, as active and practical people rather than as academics or thinkers – and yet they have to make pretty complex decisions all the time.’ King took two further postgraduate qualifications along the way – an MA at Manchester University and a diploma in applied criminology at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where she has just been made an Honorary Fellow.

‘I think one thing decision makers in Oxford have in common with policing is a duty of care to a potentially vulnerable population.’ The interview occurring a few days after the suicide bombing in Manchester leads inevitably to a consideration of security.

‘I’m conscious of it’, she notes, ‘I’m taking over the University sub-committee [for security] next term.’ But the issues are similar at Oxford as for national Policing, she adds.’ ‘Measures to bolster security tend to have costs in restricted freedoms. Looking around the world, where security measures are very high and crime is very low; there tends to be less freedom of all types, and perhaps even an absence of due process in the Criminal Justice System. I believe we need to maintain our values and keep an alert and considered view on what we want as a society. Our strongest reaction to terrorist acts is often to continue as normal. Completely locking down a college is not desirable, proportionate or feasible – we need a sensible and measured approach.’

‘We all recognize I think that the likelihood of being personally involved in a terrorist attack is slight; but the consequences of being involved might be terrible. So we need, like the rest of the country to be alert but not alarmed.’

Should more Oxbridge graduates go into policing today? ‘Like so many other students, I didn’t know what to do in my final year. But I came from a family with a strong public service ethos – my father a civil servant, mother a physiotherapist, eldest sister a prison governor; two teachers, one academic; and you know, a set of values that were about serving others.’

‘It might sound odd for a 21 year-old, but I was looking ahead and saying to myself, ‘OK what will I be proud of after a career of thirty, forty years?’ I knew then that making money for a company and a bit for myself wasn’t going to work. I wanted to do something that mattered.’

‘I thought about all this quite philosophically. Every country in the world has a form of policing. It’s an essential service. It’s one where it really matters how it’s done. If it’s done really well it can help to address social inequality; you’re protecting the most vulnerable. You’re doing something that matters. Also, I had a real sense that I’d had a middle class upbringing and no gap year: a desk job really didn’t appeal – I did want an adventure, some life experience.’

In those days the Home Office ran a three or four day course to allow potential applicants to decide whether to apply for a graduate entry scheme. King went on it in Preston, Lancashire, and then applied and got in via the Constabulary in Cheshire. She then had to do two years of ordinary policing on the beat and worked ‘very hard to pass my Sergeant’s exam, which involved a lot of rote learning.’

Assistant Commissioner Helen King outside Scotland yardFast forward a few years and King had been promoted to the top, where she was an Assistant Chief Constable in Merseyside, the Deputy Chief Constable in Cheshire and then an Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, with responsibility in one role for over 20,000 officers. Near the end, having shared the news of her career move to Oxford, the Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe took her to the switching on of the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree lights; like many of her colleagues, he was evidently very proud, she smiles in recollection at how he insisted on introducing her: ‘You must meet Helen, one of our Assistant Commissioners, she’s going to be Principal of St Anne's College at Oxford!’

‘I’d say to any student now, that the Police is a fascinating career – there’s a not a day that goes past when you’re not making a difference to someone’s life. If you are the victim of a crime, report a missing person or get stopped by the Police it’s always a significant interaction. You have the privilege of being with people when they are dealing with some of the most difficult things that will ever happen to them and you have the opportunity to make a difference to whole communities.'

Long gone are the days when you had to be a scholar to head a college, or for that matter a senior ex-Civil servant or politician. For a while now there has been a move towards senior media people including King’s immediate predecessor. Now, perhaps, King’s appointment points in another direction and opens up the notion that a College, and the parent institution – in this case the University of Oxford – exists not for its own progress alone but as a community-facing entity.

‘If you think about it, most of the time in Policing, you’re working with the most vulnerable communities with some of the biggest challenges in society. St Anne’s prides itself on being connected and relevant to the outside world, allowing people to access an Oxford education who might not otherwise be able to. I hope my professional background can reinforce this – I’m never going to aspire to or portray myself as being from an ivory tower. I think that’s very valuable right now given the barriers generated by stereotypes of the University and access issues for historically for women and still for many other underrepresented groups.’

Helen KingShe adds that the St Anne’s college motto is ‘purposefully and boldly.’ – we do need to be bold, she says, bold about increasing social justice and addressing inequality. She notes that if the Met Police doesn’t look and feel like London then it risks looking like ‘an occupying force.’ Oxford’s the same – it has to reflect Britain in 2017 in the make-up of its student body.’

She adds, ‘we’re quite naïve about the hurdles facing people with ordinary upbringings coming here. There is a huge disparity of preparation among schools, for example. But we can tackle it, and we will!’

Helen King (St Anne’s, PPE, 1983) joined the Cheshire Constabulary as a Police Constable in 1986 under the Graduate Entry Scheme. She worked in uniform and CID roles across the county. In 2005, Helen transferred to Merseyside Police as an Assistant Chief Constable. In 2009, she took over the Force's Operations portfolio, responsible for Merseyside's six policing areas. She was awarded the Queen's Police Medal in the New Year's Honours list 2011. In April 2012, Helen returned to Cheshire Constabulary as the Deputy Chief Constable and was responsible for performance management, governance, standards and communications. Helen joined the Metropolitan Police Service as Assistant Commissioner for Territorial Policing in June 2014 with oversight of policing in London’s 32 Boroughs and was responsible for Roads Policing and Criminal Justice.  Since April 2016, she has held the position of Assistant Commissioner for Professionalism which includes responsibility for Training and Professional Standards.