A former Ministry of Defence police officer has won a discrimination case after she was sacked for failing the ‘bleep test’, shedding light on issues of gender discrimination within the MoD’s fitness evaluation system.
Koren Brown, from Dunblane, Scotland, dreamed of joining the police since her primary school days. In 2015, her dream became a reality when she was successfully recruited into the Ministry of Defence Police (MDP), a civilian force tasked with safeguarding sensitive sites across the UK.
All armed officers recruited after 2014 were required to achieve a fitness level of 7.6 in the notorious ‘bleep test’ – a fitness test that involves running back and forth between two points at increasing speeds. You might remember having to do it at school in PE.
The employment tribunal highlighted a critical issue: women face inherent biological differences that make it more challenging for them to pass the bleep test. These differences include lower average muscle mass, a higher percentage of body fat, and smaller hearts and lungs compared to men.
When Brown underwent the assessment, she scored 6.7 on the bleep test, falling short of the 7.6 requirement. In April 2017 she was then deployed to work at a Scottish site.
The tribunal acknowledged that while reaching level 7.6 on the bleep test was indeed the aim, the test needed to be proportionate. Herein lay the crux of the issue: Brown repeatedly fell short of the 7.6 level, but she was never afforded the opportunity to formally attempt an alternative fitness test known as the ‘Chester treadmill test’. This test involves running on a treadmill with an increasing gradient every two minutes.
Brown’s experience with the Chester treadmill test was far from encouraging. During her one chance to familiarise herself with it, she struggled to maintain balance and received no encouragement or guidance. Furthermore, the tribunal found that no other means of reaching the equivalent of 7.6 on the bleep test were ever discussed. Brown was dismissed from her position in October 2018, leaving her feeling disheartened and abandoned by the MoD Police.
‘Everyone at work was telling me “don’t worry, it won’t get to that, they won’t sack you” and then it happened and I just kind of felt … it was horrible,’ she said.
The question on everyone’s lips? When did this seemingly old-school fitness test become the ultimate marker as to whether someone is fit or not? Aren’t there other ways to assess fitness?
Kunal Makwana, PT and founder of KMAK Fitness says that fitness needs can vary based on the specific demands of a job or sport. ‘While the bleep test measures cardiovascular endurance, it may not be the best marker for all aspects of fitness required in a profession, like strength, agility, or job-specific skills.’
It’s also worth noting that our performance on any given day can be influenced by numerous factors – including fatigue, stress, mental state and even environmental conditions. ‘Relying solely on the bleep test score can overlook other essential qualities of an individual, such as experience, skills, decision-making ability, and other fitness components,’ adds Makwana.
‘If the officer was fired solely based on not achieving a 7.6 score on the bleep test, without considering other aspects of her job performance, skills, experience, and other fitness components, it might be seen as an overly narrow approach to determining job fitness. It’s crucial for professions, especially those with physical demands like policing, to employ a holistic approach to assessing fitness and readiness, rather than relying on a singular metric.’
Eamon Keating, chairman of the Defence Police Federation, told the BBC he deemed the decision ‘massively significant’ and the force had lost ‘a very valuable officer’. Keating also revealed that MoD police firearms officers were no longer required to complete the bleep test; instead, fitness tests designed by the Institute of Naval Medicine had been implemented. The MoD did not provide comments regarding these changes.
In light of her victory, Brown expressed her hope that the MDP would learn from her experience and ensure that similar incidents do not happen to others. She stressed the importance of providing more help, support, and second chances, stating; ‘The whole point of going through the tribunal was that I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else’.
The Ministry of Defence has reportedly decided to appeal the tribunal’s decision, indicating that the issue remains contentious and is far from resolved.