HC Deb 19 July 1962 vol 663

 Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peel]  - this point in the proceeding marks the end of the days work.  However, so that MP's can speak on one-off stories not given official House time, those involved have to stay behind and work through until midnight. So the session below STARTS at 2339, and as you will see, FINISHED at 0007 the next morning.

 11.39 p.m.

 Mr. Niall MacDermot (Derby, North)

I am very glad to have this opportunity to raise the question of the qualifications for training in H.M.S. "Ganges". H.M.S. "Ganges" is a well-known Royal Naval training establishment at Shotley, near Ipswich. I think that I can best introduce the topic by recounting what happened recently to the son of one of my constituents, who is the licensee of a hotel at Chaddesden. He is fortunate to have a very fine son, whom I have met, called Trevor Daniels, aged 15. For the last two and a half years this boy has entertained a very keen ambition to join the Navy. At that time two and a half years ago he joined the Royal Naval Cadets and has attended regularly at Markeaton Park in Derby as a cadet. During this time it had always been his ambition to join up as soon as he could.

In February of this year he applied to join as a junior seaman. The recruiting officer at Derby explained to him that, as he had not got the G.C.E. qualification, various of the trades in the Navy would be debarred to him. The boy was in the "C" stream in his school, so it was known to the authorities from the start that he was not a boy with high educational qualifications. He is a boy of considerable character, very keen to get in and, I imagine, the type of lad that the Navy would be very glad to have.

On 19th February he sat in Derby for an entrance examination in two subjects, English and mathematics. He passed those examinations. On 27th February he underwent a medical examination to see if he was medically fit, which he was. He was then signed on. He was given a copy of an impressive document which he had signed himself and which was witnessed by two Naval personnel called, "Candidate's Acknowledgement Form". It begins with these words: I, Trevor James Daniels, understand that I am joining the Royal Navy as a Junior 2nd class for service as a seaman, or communication rating for a period of twelve years' Total Service: of which period Nine years' Service from the age of 18 years will be rendered in the Royal Navy … and the balance in the Royal Fleet Reserve. There is then a paragraph to the effect that the conditions of service have been explained to him. The document ends in this way: I acknowledge that I am bound to serve until the end of my engagement and understand that earlier discharge is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. The House can well imagine that this was a proud moment for this boy, who thought and believed that he had been accepted for the Royal Navy.

The next thing that happened was that he received a communication dated 13th April. It was a letter inviting him to attend at the recruiting office on 1st May for entry into the Navy. In the middle of the letter there were these rather ominous words: It must be clearly understood that your entry will be subject to final approval at that establishment. The letter then told him what to bring with him. He was told that he would get his uniform on reporting and that his civilian clothing would be returned to his home. He was given a railway warrant. He went up to H.M.S. "Ganges" at Ipswich. He was issued with his uniform and his kit. His civilian clothes were duly sent home. He found himself one of an intake of 200 boys of the same age. During the first fortnight many naval matters were explained to them, but they had only about four hours of what could properly be described as schooling, which were all in mathematics. For some reason he had three different instructors.

The boy is very frank about it. Quite dearly, these (lessons) ware above his head. He told me that the matter was new to him. He says, "I could not follow it very well". After a fortnight he and all the other boys underwent another examination. It was a two-hours' written examination.

At the end of the month, on 29th May, this boy was told that he had failed that examination, that he would consequently be discharged from the Royal Navy and that he was to go home the next day. That duly happened. The next day he was sent home—and not he alone. I understand that thirteen other boys from his intake were also sent home, making a total of 14. Seven per cent. of the total intake were sent home after one month.

A letter was sent to the boy's father which arrived on the same day as the boy. It was from the captain in command of H.M.S. "Ganges". It said: I much regret to inform you that your son Trevor is to be discharged from the Royal Navy 'Unsuitable'. I know that Trevor has tried hard, but unfortunately he has still fallen well below the standard we expect at this stage of his course in school. After consulting with the Officers which whom he is most concerned I have reluctantly concluded that he should be discharged ". He goes on to say: We are sorry to lose Trevor since he has seemed happy here and has tried hard. He has a pleasant disposition and co-operated well with his Instructors. I am sure you will realise that as he has no chance of keeping up with the course in H.M.S. Ganges it is better for him to make a fresh start now and so avoid a more severe disappointment later". He points out that the boy can apply for re-entry to the Navy after he has reached the age of 16¼ if he continues to work at mathematics, making quite clear that  it was mathematics and nothing else which rendered him unsuitable.

I should make it quite clear that I am in no way trying to get this decision reversed, nor is the boy's father, nor the boy. They accept and understand that he is not up to the required standard. Surprisingly perhaps, the boy also is not disheartened by the treatment he has had. He is determined to work hard and try again to get into the Royal Navy. He is attending night school classes in mathematics. What the father feels, and I think rightly feels, is that if a certain standard of ability in mathematics is required by H.M.S. "Ganges" and the boy undergoes a test in mathematics before he is accepted, it is disgraceful if that test is not adequate to discover whether the boy is in fact up to required standard.

It appears monstrous that a boy should understand that he is accepted and communicate to his family and friends that he has been accepted and feel all the joy that his ambition has been fulfilled and then realise a month later that all his hopes are dashed. I am sure the Minister will appreciate the feelings of a boy aged 16 when he is subjected to all the taunts and jokes for his failure.

What other establishment would dream of dealing with boys in this way, what school, what college? It would be scandalous if they attempted to do so. It is not as if this were a single isolated case. This happened to fourteen boys out of an intake of 200. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten me and the House by giving information as to whether this is an average figure in other intakes or if it is exceptional. On any basis for this intake alone these figures appear to disclose a disgraceful state of affairs. It is not right to sport with the feelings of young boys like this and take in boys without having by the preliminary test found whether or not they have reached the qualifications required to enable them to undergo their training.

A minor point in this connection is the waste of public funds involved in issuing warrants, getting boys who are to be discharged in a matter of days brought into the Navy and have them issued with kit. What happens to their kit and equipment? The boy was given to understand that his kit, apart from the actual suit, would be burned and destroyed. I find that hard to believe. If it is not so does it mean that some other boys coming in on a later intake will be issued with second-hand clothing? These are minor points. The main question is what possible justification can there be for subjecting a boy to a test in mathematics and telling him only a month later that he is not up to the required standard of mathematics although he passed that test?

11.50 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot) on his reappearance in the House. It is nice to see him back. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this subject, but I do not wish it to be felt that, as the Admiralty Minister responsible in the House for all naval questions, I regard Adjournment de-debates as the only occasions when information may be solicited. I am always available to see hon. Members if they have problems, to answer their letters and to answer Parliamentary Questions, with, if necessary, an Adjournment debate at the end. However, this debate gives me an opportunity to put some of the facts before the House and to clear up some of the anxieties which the hon. Gentleman obviously has and which he has voiced in calm and statesmanlike terms this evening.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said about this boy. He is a good boy, the type of boy we should like to have in the Navy. He did his first test at a recruiting centre on 19th February. It is true that arithmetic was the subject in which he appeared to be weakest. The tests which we conduct are exactly the same in every one of the fifty recruiting centres throughout the country, and they are designed to give us a broad picture of a boy's potential.  There is more than a test in arithmetic. I think that the hon. Gentleman suggested that there were only two tests, arithmetic and English. In fact, the boys are tested in spelling, there is also a test to see whether they have an elementary knowledge of practical things, and there is a test of mental agility. As the Navy becomes more technical, it is important that we should try to forecast whether these young boys of 15 will match the requirements and be able to keep up with their classes and become useful members of the Royal Navy. This four-part test in practical matters, arithmetic, spelling and general intelligence takes thirty minutes.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that it is an imperfect test. In fact, we have followed the careers of 20,000 seamen who have taken the test in order to see whether it has proved to be a fair measure of their potential. This research has produced considerable confirmation that the test is fair. We find that the better boys do in the test the more quickly they get promotion the further they advance in their careers and the longer they stay in the Navy. We take pride in the fact that this is so. In my view, therefore, this initial test is not in doubt.

There is, of course—the present case is a typical example—the problem of the marginal recruit, the boy whose test produces a mark close to the pass mark. We pass a boy with 45 out of 100, and this boy's mark was 46. We have a long experience of what to expect from these boys. In the vast majority of cases, we find that those who achieve a pass mark make good in their training, and, even though the test may reveal a weakness in one or other subject, we feel that it is generally worth persevering.

I acknowledge that when we have a boy of good character and keenness, with a record as this boy has in the Sea Cadets, the recruiter is more likely to take a lenient view and say, perhaps, that the boy will make good when he goes to H.M.S. "Ganges". I think that the hon. Gentleman spoke of 7 percent of our intake, and I think that this is about right—

Mr. MacDermot

Disgraceful.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

To shout "Disgraceful" is not really to be very helpful. May I be allowed to continue my argument? I did say that the hon. Gentleman used statesmanlike terms. Perhaps I ought to withdraw that.

Our intake in 1961–62 was 2,700 boys. In the previous year it was no more than 2,100. We have been expanding our intake, as the Navy wants these young boys and wants to help to train them. In spite of this increase, our failure figure has been only 50, which represents an over-generous assessment in the marginal recruiting of just one boy for each recruiting centre in one year. I doubt whether in our national education system we would find a better result. Each recruiting centre throughout the country makes a marginal assessment on those who fall in the grey area and makes a mistake of one boy a year. I do not think that unreasonable.

We could, of course, raise the standard of these tests and say that 50 is the pass mark. But this would be to destroy and discourage good potential material and we have not thought that right. This is a matter of balance, and I think that the hon. Member will agree on that. Some boys are obviously through; then there is the middle area which is uncertain; and then there is the area below that whose boys we cannot take.

Mr. MacDermot

The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. Here we are dealing with a specific qualification requiring a given standard of ability in mathematics. Surely it is not beyond the ingenuity of the Royal Navy to devise a test which will find out whether or not a boy of 15 has the mathematical ability to do this course?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

What the hon. Member says seems reasonable on the face of it. I can show him the papers outside—and perhaps this matter could have been better dealt with there than in the House. We have the analysis of 20,000 results of seaman boys, and these show that there is nothing much wrong with the test.

This boy got 11 out of 30 for arithmetic. He reported to "Ganges" on 1st May and got the classification test, when he scored 9 out of 20 in the arithmetic test. Again, this was a pass mark. On the 18th May he sat what we call the "Schoolmaster's test", which is more in the nature of an ordinary examination than an 11-plus examination. In that test he got none out of 100. It seemed that this boy could add and subtract quite efficiently but that he could not do long divisions and multiplications.

"Ganges" still did not reject him— and that is a point missed in the hon. Member's remarks, by accident I am sure. They were so surprised that they gave him a repeat test, with the same long division and multiplication, but changing the figures. He sat for this on 25th May and he scored 15 out of 100. They then said, not unreasonably, that despite their desire to take the boy, they felt that he was bound to hold back his classmates and would not make the grade at that stage. They therefore felt they had to reject him.

There are two valid points of criticism. First, was it right to give such short notification? I apologise for this. It was done for one reason only—that it was decided to give him a second chance. Had that other chance not been given, the notification would have been longer.

A letter was sent to the parents two days beforehand, and it was followed by a telegram. I may say at this point that only 60 per cent. of parents acknowledge the letters. But because of the second test, there was much less warning than is desirable. I have drawn the attention of the commanding officer to this. Normally there would be three or four days' notice, and this is to be adhered to as strictly as possible. The other point, which also is a valid one, is whether we ought, perhaps, to warn parents and boys that they will have a further test when they get there and that if they do not match up to the test there is the danger, as happened in this case, that they will be rejected.

Before dealing with that point, I should like to revert to the hon. Member's question of whether it is typical that roughly 7 per cent. are rejected. I have the figures for January to March, 1962, when we entered 931 boys and 40 were discharged for academic failures. That was 4 per cent. From April to June, 1962, we entered 639 boys and 45, or 7 per cent., were discharged. Over the first six months of this year, therefore, the total entered was 1,570, of whom 85 were rejected, which is rather less than 6 per cent.

In addition, another 6 per cent. are rejected either for disciplinary reasons or because they cannot settle into naval life, they do not like it or they have faults of character which, it is felt, are not likely to be ironed out in the tuition which we give them. Therefore, it is not an unrepresentative figure.

I have examined carefully the various papers that are sent to a boy and his parents. One is what I call the consent paper, which is sent to the parents of juniors under the age of 21, and which states: I hereby certify that my son or ward … has my full consent to join the Navy. It its right that those parents should be warned that if a boy does not match up or if he holds back his classmates, we will have to send him home and he will have to have, as happened in this case, special tuition, otherwise it is unlikely that he will be successful when he has another try.

I therefore suggest that something in the following sense should be inserted as an explanatory note in what I call the consent form, which would be sent by the recruiter to the parent: Parents will appreciate that a small number of boys who have passed the entry test may find either that they are unable to maintain the necessary progress under training or that they are unsuited to naval life. It will be necessary "— perhaps it may be necessary— to discharge such boys, both in their own interests and in the interests of the Service. If that is put in the form, parents will be forewarned that the recruiting test is of a rudimentary nature and that a second test on arrival at the establishment, which we call the schoolmaster's test, a more rigorous one in a rather wider spectrum, will be the final judgment whether the boy is likely to match up to the needs of the Service. For this reason, because he has drawn my attention to the matter, I am grateful to the hon. Member and I hope that he will feel that this will put right an omission and weakness which, I think, exists in our present system.

Mr. MacDermot

I should like to thank the Minister for the helpful suggestion which he has made. I appreciate that every Service Department must preserve the right to discharge people who prove to be unsuitable through no fault of their own because something comes to light later which shows that they do not fit into Service life. A warning to this effect certainly would be most helpful.

Would not the Minister also consider a little further whether it would not be wise, perhaps, to consider making the initial test a little less rudimentary? If it is a regular feature that 7 per cent. are discharged after a month and that, I gather from the hon. Gentleman's figures, half of those are discharged on academic grounds, this shows that the test is too rudimentary. Bearing in mind what effect this will have on the feelings of the boys, it is a serious consideration. I suggest that it should be considered whether this test should not be stiffened up a little so that it is able to sort the wheat from the chaff more efficiently at that stage.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to answer that. I am able to tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that our recruiting authorities are looking at this very point. We are always examining whether we can raise the standard of the tests a little and reduce wastage without missing potentially good boys. We are considering whether we could make the initial test a little more comprehensive, a little better, so that the grey area where boys are marginal is reduced. I knew that this was being done before the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned it.

In view of what he has said, I will pay special attention to it to see whether we can further improve what I think he will acknowledge has in essence been fairly satisfactory. I know that some boys are rejected, but when we follow the careers of the 20,000 seamen who have done the test it is clear that there is nothing much wrong with it. If minor adjustments can improve it further, we shall be pleased to make them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.