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Royal Navy (Entrance Examinations)

Volume 345: debated on Thursday 6 April 1939

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3.26 p.m.

On 15th February last I addressed a question to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty with reference to an examination held under the auspices of the Board in November for certain vacancies in Naval cadetships in the Paymaster's branch. I put down a question because my attention had been drawn to the experience of a youth from my constituency who entered that examination and who did not, as my investigations have tended to prove, receive fair treatment. I raised the question then, as I am taking the opportunity of raising it to-day, at the request of the headmaster and the board of governors at the boy's school. Since then I have discovered that this complaint is becoming rather general. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell), with whom I got into touch, will take the opportunity of placing before the Parliamentary Secretary a complaint of the same kind. At a time like this, when appeals are going forth from this House to every section of the community to rally for national service, it is of the utmost importance that every appointment should be made upon merit alone and that there should be fair play for every applicant for a post, wherever the applicant comes from and to whatever class of society he belongs.

This youth first sat for a written examination according to the regulations, and he came out 18thon the list. He had an aggregate of 862 marks, and in two difficult subjects, physics and chemistry, he had 92 per cent, of possible marks. That shows that this young man, so far as intellectual ability and quality of mind are concerned, is a very good student, and the fact that he came out 18th on the list shows that, other things being equal, he was entitled to a place. In addition to the written examination, there was an oral examination. I gather from the regulations that this is composed of two parts. The board of interviewers are expected to take into consideration the school record of the applicant when giving him marks for his performance at the interview. The purpose of the interview is to enable the board to judge by personal appearance and the interview whether the applicant possesses the qualities of leadership and personality which are desired. This is his school record, not from the point of view of his intellectual attainments, but from the point of view of whether he shows qualities of leadership:
"He is an outstanding boy who commands respect and is a leader among his fellow pupils. He is a school prefect, a very prominent player in the school Rugby XV, of which he has been captain. a member of the cricket XI, and an all-round athlete. He has capacity for leadership and would seem to be the type who would make an excellent officer in the Navy."
That is the headmaster's testimony to this boy. Since my attention was called to the case I have interviewed the boy myself, and I confirm fully that testimony of his headmaster. On that school record alone I think this boy deserved very serious consideration at an interview.

The second part of this examination was an interview before the Board. The purpose of this interview, I presume, is that the applicant will appear before the board of examiners, that they will question him, and through that interview be able to assess his qualities of leadership and personality. To begin with, the interview lasted less than five minutes. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, or anyone else who has had experience of public life, whether he really thinks that a board can assess at their true value the qualities of leadership in a youth who appears before them for less than five minutes. During those five minutes he was asked a number of questions. The first question was, "What school do you come from?" The boy replied that he came from a certain county school, as it is termed in the part of Wales from which I come—what, I suppose, is more generally known as a secondary school. Then he was asked, "What school is it?" The boy said it was a mixed school. Whether mixed schools, or separate schools for boys and girls, are the better is a matter of opinion. In areas like ours it is a case of "Beggars cannot be choosers." We have to take what there is. The boy said that when he gave that reply he detected a note of contempt in the remark, "Mixed schools. I gather they are quite common in Wales." Perhaps the boy was over-sensitive, as Celtic people are, but he thought he detected some contempt in the reference to the word "Wales."

Another question was, "What books do you read apart from your school books?" The boy said, "Apart from my school books I prefer to read biography." He was asked, "What are you reading now?" and told them he was reading "The Autobiography of a Super Tramp," by W. H. Davies. The interviewer said, "What is he? I have never heard of him." We feel that for those of us who live in Wales, or in this country, to show ignorance of that great lyrical poet, perhaps the greatest lyrical poet of this age, would be deplorable. If I had been asked that question and the inter- viewer did not know W. H. Davies, I should have replied in these words from one of Davies's own poems:
"What is this life if, full of care,
There is no time to stand and stare?"
A further question asked was, "What papers do you read?" The boy said what papers he read, and then he was asked about games and athletics. The whole interview lasted only five minutes. In the written examination this boy was eighteenth out of the whole list. He has greater intellectual capacity, based upon that examination than, 79 out of the 89 successful applicants. The written examination was the real test of his ability. This boy was unsuccessful in the interview. How did he become unsuccessful? The position is that both in the written examination and in the interview applicants must obtain a minimum number of marks before they pass. This youth was far above the minimum required in every subject in the written examination; he was nearer the maximum than the minimum. In the interview, however—I must point out that his application could not succeed unless he received 50 marks—he was granted 40 marks, 10 below the minimum required for a pass. The board judged his quality upon his school record and upon his performance in an interview which lasted less than five minutes and in which he was asked the questions which I have reported to the House.

The Parliamentary Secretary has sent me a list of the successful applicants, and I have been examining it. All but six of the applicants were from what we call public schools. In an examination open to the schoolboys of this country such a record cannot be justified in view of the standard of education in the secondary schools. As a matter of fact, complaints are becoming general among a certain section of opinion that the secondary schools have outstripped the public schools of this country. Let me give one or two examples, by way of comparison, from this list. A candidate from a public school which has a fee of 100 guineas a year sat for this examination. In the written examination he secured 575 marks as compared with the 862 of the applicant from my division, but in the interview, whereas my applicant had 40 marks, this applicant secured 380 marks. Another applicant who went in for the written examination got 588 marks, nearly 300 below the applicant from my division, but in the interview he had 350 marks. How did these two public school applicants get those extraordinary marks for the interview when they had been hopelessly defeated in the written examination? The suggestion made is that they were given those marks at the interview in order that they might be brought in.

There are the facts. I have since heard that this complaint is so general that it was referred to at a conference of headmasters of secondary schools held recently. An official representative, called, I think, a liaison officer, of the Services attended the conference and appealed to the headmasters to use their influence to encourage their boys to enter the Services. The Parliamentary Secretary knows that the liaison officer was a very well known figure in the life and literature of this country, and that he was given a very uncomfortable time as headmaster after headmaster got up and asked how he was to encourage his boys to enter the Services when they got this kind of treatment. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to treat this as a very serious matter, because when we are standing for democracy it is essential that every trace of snobbery and class distinction should be removed from the Services. I would conclude with a sentence from the letter of the headmaster who brought this case to my attention. The letter says:
"A board which is unable or unwilling to find more merit than 40 marks in a candidate of this type and ability is not functioning in the best interests of the Navy and the State. Justice will not be done at these interviews until the boards are compelled to deal with the candidates purely as individuals and prohibited from making inquiries about their schools, the particular newspapers they read, and other particulars which give information as to the particular stratum of society to which they belong."
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take a serious view of this question and that, as the result of raising the matter to-day, changes will be made to ensure that fair play is given to every boy who enters for these examinations, wherever he comes from.

3.41 p.m.

I think my hon. Friend has adequately covered the main grounds of the complaint. I have a similar complaint, and I think he will agree, having looked at the papers, that it is an even more outrageous case than the one upon which he has addressed the House. The boy had been educated at the Aston Grammar School, Market Rasen. He is a fine big boy, between 16 and 17 years of age, standing close on six feet and weighing about 12 stone. He is a good representative Lincolnshire man, and I am proud of him. He made application to enter the Naval Air Arm. His father brought him up, and he had his interview and went through the usual examination. He felt, when he came out, that one answer that he had given to a question had proved fatal. They asked him what his father was. His father is a motor engineer who for some years has been getting his living by bus driving. The boy felt that that answer had made an end of his chances of getting through. The father served in the War and is now serving as an officer in one of our voluntary forces, and has been ever since the War. His brother is serving in the Marines, and all the family are in one way or another rendering service to the country.

The father feels that his boy has been given a raw deal, because his attainments at school are of the very highest and his schoolmaster and those who know him best give him the very highest and his schoolmaster and those who know him best give him the very highest character. I have known the family for a number of years, and I could not speak too highly of them. They are hardworking people and, if that is a failing in an application for a post like this, he would have to plead guilty. I did not want to bring the details of the case before the House. I took other steps to see whether there could not be a re-examination of the facts. These brass hats, sitting as a board, are trying the very lives of the boys, and the impression prevails that, though a boy may have gone to the Aston Grammar School, if he comes from a poor home and does not wear the old school tie, his chances are very small. Some consideration ought to be given to the matter. I hope the Minister will take note of what has been said with reference to these two cases and will see that the regulations are altered.

3.45 P.m.

No complaint can be made of the very moderate way in which the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) have raised two cases that have come to their own notice. Knowing the interest that they take in their constituencies, one would naturally expect them to be interested in such boys. I think it will be better if at the start I explain briefly to the House the general principles that govern the Navy in the selection of candidates for appointment as officers. The case to which the hon. Member referred was that of an applicant under what is known as the special entry scheme. For that purpose three examinations are held every year, in November, March and June, and the age of an applicant must, at the date of his examination, be between 17 years and 18 years eight months. If he fails in his first examination, he can enter for the others, so that he has in fact five chances of coming before the interviewing board.

The interviewing board is convened, not by ourselves, but by the Civil Service Commissioners, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are entrusted with the very difficult task of selecting candidates, not only for the Fighting Services, but for most posts in the Civil Service. The interviewing board may include members who are Civil Service Commissioners; there is a civilian chairman, who is either himself one of the Civil Service Commissioners or some civilian appointed by them. In this case I happen to know the chairman, having worked with him for many years, and he is a broad-minded senior civil servant of great experience in this kind of work. Each of the Services sends its own representatives quite apart from the civilian element. In the case of the Navy, side by side with the civilian element we have an admiral and a captain, and, if the applicant wishes to join a non-executive branch of the Navy, they are assisted by a specialist officer—for instance, an engineer-captain if the applicant desires to join the engineering branch, or a paymaster-captain, or an officer of the Royal Marines. Candidates must have passed their school certificate examination, or an examination of some equivalent standard, and, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the examination consists of two parts. There is a written examination, carrying a total of 1,350 marks, and there is an interview, carrying a total of 400 marks. In order to qualify, a candidate must get for the interview not less than 50 marks out of 400, and for the written examination 75 marks out of 300 in, I think, mathematics and science.

This interview board has before it the school record of the applicant. This is from the headmaster, in the normal case. It deals with such questions as the personality of the boy, his gifts of leadership, his conduct at school, and, generally, his educational attainments. It is important, as the House will realise, to have a continuity of selection, and that has been achieved by making the Civil Service Commissioners the agents for the Government. They spend their time almost exclusively at this very difficult task of selecting candidates. In order to improve and perfect this continuity, we are appointing an Admiralty civil servant to strengthen the naval element of the interview board, and we are also appointing as our representative a flag officer on the retired list, so that he can serve on that committee for a number of consecutive occasions, and will not suddenly be called away, as might happen with a flag officer on the active list. In those two respects, I think we shall get a certain improvement.

There are one or two general considerations to which I should like to refer before I come to the particular case. The first is that applicants are seeking to join a Service which I think is the greatest Service in the world, with, I think, the highest standard in the world. They are seeking to join a corps of officers known throughout the world, not only for their fighting qualities but for their diplomatic qualities. Around the Spanish coast and the Chinese coast the diplomatic qualities of these officers in peace-time are almost as important as their fighting qualities in war-time. I think the whole House will agree how extraordinarily well young lieutenants and lieutenant commanders by themselves have acted in situations where they cannot refer to senior officers, and have had to take decisions, to deal with foreign Powers, in situations which sometimes baffle ambassadors and consuls. The House will realise why it is so essential to maintain a very high standard. No one will wish to lower this standard.

The question now arises: Is this election board biased in the selection of candidates by considerations of class? I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an anachronism to assume that suitable applicants for these positions are confined to boys from a few well-known public schools. One should seek raw material from every field of the economic and social life of the country. But there are one or two considerations which must be borne in mind in connection with all applicants for any position, whether it is a post in business or in any of the Services. However good the boy may appear to his headmaster, he may come from quite a small school. It may be a good school, but the boy may not have had the same testing time as had the captain of another and much larger school where the competition is much keener. The only persons who can judge of the suitability of an applicant who comes up with a good reputation for athletics or sport from a small school and another boy who comes from a large school are the members of the interview board themselves.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the schools from which successful applicants come are limited almost exclusively to the older public schools, which, in the common jargon are associated with "the old school tie." I have the list here. I find that there are 75 schools of the headmasters conference, of which 20 are grant-aided secondary schools. There are, in addition, grant-aided secondary schools not included in the conference, and non-grant-aided secondary schools. As regards the Air Branch to which the hon. Gentleman referred, out of 108 successful applications, the headmasters' conference schools were represented by 36, grant-aided secondary schools by 42, and secondary school's not aided by nine. They came, not from the old public schools to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but from schools which had sprung up since the reorganisation of the education system.

The distinction which I made generally was between the publicly owned and controlled grant-aided schools and public schools which are really private schools. The hon. Gentleman has given the number of successful candidates from certain private schools, but will he give also the number from other private schools?

One of the most difficult things in the world is to define what is a public school or a secondary school. The border line is very difficult to draw. Anyone with any knowledge of education who examined the lists of schools could say frankly that they covered in the main not only the public schools, but grammar schools, grant-aided schools, and, in fact, secondary schools of every description all over the country. I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman has made good his argument. There are two other factors which are causes of disappointment when an applicant comes up for examination. A boy's chance of success must depend to some extent on the number of vacancies in the branch at the time of the application, in relation to the number of applicants. Naturally, it must be a disappointment when one does not succeed. Speaking from our own experience, how many of us when we have failed have consoled ourselves by telling our friends that there was an unusually large number of applicants.

There is another factor which is common knowledge. Boys, good boys, brilliant boys, do not always make the best of themselves in examinations, especially in oral examinations. I am speaking from memory of 10 or 15 years ago, but I seem to remember that the late Lord Curzon was very disappointed in his examination for "Greats" at Oxford that he only got a second class, when he had worked for a first class. For some extraordinary reason, despite his brilliant attainments, he got only a second, and he made this note in his diary, or something like it:
"I shall spend the rest of my life showing how wrong the examiners were."
He certainly did. It is the same with boys who come up for examination. They may be nervous, temperamental, and they do not always make the best of themselves.

Having explained the general principles that govern the choice of boys for these places and the conditions which.apply to the candidates, I turn to the particular case mentioned by the hon. Member. He said that certain questions were put to the boy. It does not follow because a certain question was put that the questioner did not know the answer. The whole point is to get the applicant to talk.

Will the hon. Member direct his mind to this point? The boy was asked, "What is your father?" If the examiner knew what the boy's father was, why did he ask the question? What is the reason for asking such a question?

I should have thought the reason was obvious. If I had been asked what my father was, I should have felt perfectly at home and should have begun to speak about him. You need to choose questions which put the boy at his ease, so that he can talk freely. I am not on the board, nor is my hon. and gallant Friend; and perhaps these are very good omissions. We must lay down a general principle and assume that experienced persons will do their job as best they can. They probably do it better than we would, because they do nothing else. They are always interviewing boys.

I do not want to say anything in any way to prejudice the career or the position of the boy who is known to the hon. Member. All that I can say is that, from an examination of his record, I should say he has in front of him a brilliant career. What happened to him and to 200 others, is that, compared with other applicants, they were not considered as good for the post of naval officers. I wish it were possible to read to the House the confidential reports that one gets from our representatives on some of these selection committees. That is not possible because it would create a very bad precedent, but if I could do so, the House would see at once that no question of class prejudice comes in and no question of a particular school comes in. The only consideration that influences the members of the selection committee, or the main consideration, is, Will this particular boy, on his record, his personality, his mental capacity, his general make-up and outlook, be able when trained to take his place in the finest corps of officers in the world? That standard is very high, and we intend to keep it high.

I cannot completely satisfy the hon. Members, but I hope I have said sufficient to allay any suspicions in the House and in the country that any other consideration than the merits and qualifications of the individual are taken into account and that his school, his old school tie. do not come into the consideration at all.

If it is true, as the hon. Member has said, that the interview with this candidate lasted only five minutes, can the hon. Member say whether an interview of five minutes enables an examiner to determine the character and qualifications of a candidate? The boy got only 40 marks, whereas in the paper examination he got 80 marks. Will the hon. Member say whether an examining body or interviewing body can give a clear and honest opinion of any candidate after a five minutes' interview?

I am in rather a difficulty, because I do not know how long the boy was there.

I cannot give an answer, but I will make further inquiries and let the hon. Member know. We have complete confidence in the body which performs this duty, and I hope I have said something which will reassure the hon. Member that we are working this system in a democratic manner and giving reward where it is due.

It is more than the case of this one boy. It is essential that the system should not only satisfy the hon. Member, myself or the boy, but that it should satisfy the headmasters of county schools who are doing a fine piece of work for the country. They may be getting fair play, but they donot think they are. Is it possible for the hon. Member or the Board to meet these headmasters through their organised associations and discuss the matter with them? Will he arrange for some contact with the headmasters of these secondary schools and the Board of Admiralty, so that their suspicions shall be removed and they can be satisfied that they are getting fair play?