HL Deb 06 July 1903 vol 124 cc1356-9

My Lords, some two months ago a very interesting discussion arose in your Lordships' House, through the noble Lord the Earl of Glasgow, upon the new naval scheme described in the Memorandum issued by the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty towards the close of last year. Amongst the many important charges brought about under cover of that Memorandum, one, I venture to think, of the most important is that which deals with the new system of cadetships for officers for the Royal Navy. In the first place, the age of entry has been reduced to between twelve and thirteen years, and, in the second place, competitive examination has been abolished. Now, as far as I know, the only system that exists is one of pure nomination by the First Lord of the Admiralty. Criticism has been passed, and Questions have been asked as to what guarantee the public has that out of the several hundreds of applicants the First Lord of the Admiralty will make a wise and just selection. Speaking on this point the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty used words to this effect, i.e., his sole object would be to endeavour to get those boys who in the future would be likely to make the most competent and efficient officers. He said that in making his selection he should know no other guide than this, and he used these words— I have been thinking very carefully what steps I can take to obtain sure and efficient machinery for ascertaining which of the numerous boys who apply for the grant of nomination will really make the most competent and efficient officers. I venture to ask the noble Earl if he can give the House any information with respect to the grant of nomination for naval cadetships for the first examination under the new scheme of entry, and further if he has been able to discover any machinery for ascertaining which of the boys to whom he is about to give these nominations are likely to make the most competent, the best, and the most efficient officers.


My Lords, the problem which confronted me on the reduction of the age of entry to the Navy from what it was to the present limit of between twelve and thirteen is this—how, without resorting to competitive examination, even in a limited form, to make certain that I selected from among the very numerous applicants those boys who would in the future make the best naval officers. After thinking the matter over a long time I resorted to the following scheme. I appointed a Committee, over which Admiral Sir John Fisher presided. He had three colleagues: Commander Hyde Parker, now serving in the "Britannia," Mr. Ashford, science master of Harrow, and the selected headmaster for the Royal Naval College at Osborne, and Mr. Baddeley of the Civil Service, who, as my private secretary, has had great experience in this matter. I laid before this Committee all the information I possessed in respect of all the applicants for nomination who had applied to me, and gave them leave to take any steps that were open to them to seek more information. Among other things they gave the opportunity to every schoolmaster to say anything he wished about the respective qualifications of the boys who were going up from his school. Out of a total number of between 350 and 360 boys I eliminated a few—some 20 to 25 who had only applied for one or two branches of the service. In respect of the remaining 325, who had all entered for all three branches, I invited all of them, without distinction, to appear before this Committee. The work of the Committee extended into three weeks, and each of the boys who responded to the invitation was seen separately by the Committee in an informal interview which lasted a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes in each case. I said to the Committee: "Do not make any attempt to find out what the boy's knowledge is or his standard of education. All I want is for you to report to me generally as to his intelligence and his suitability for the naval service." Now, I think I may say safely that the experiment has been most successful. I asked Professor Ewing, the new Director of Naval Education, who is not a member of the Committee, to attend the meetings frequently and to report whether he thought this was a satisfactory process of arriving at a fair estimate of the boys' comparative intelligence and suitability for the Service. Professor Ewing says— Although I have not been a member of the Committee before whom the boy candidates for nomination have appeared, I have watched the proceedings of the Committee pretty closely, being anxious to see how far this system of informal examination has proved effective. It appears to me to have worked exceedingly well. What the Committee has done is to make the boys talk, and, by putting questions of the most various kinds, to see whether they are observant and intelligent. It speaks well for their method of inspection, that after a few minutes' talk with each boy the Committee have been practically unanimous in their classification of him, and this although the four members of the Committee are men of very different habits of mind. After watching the system at work, I think that probably any group of reasonable men with equally various qualifications and experience, questioning the boys in the same informal way, would form substantially the same judgment on each. Now with this report before me which, of course, is a private report to myself, I have made my nominations. I wish expressly to have it understood that I alone am responsible to Parliament for the nominations, and I have only described what I have done in the matter in order that Parliament may see that I have taken such steps as have been open to me to find a better method than competitive examination for the selection of the most suitable boys for His Majesty's naval service. All the boys to whom I have given a nomination will now have to pass a medical and qualifying examination. If they pass the qualifying examination they will pass into the Royal Naval College; if they do not pass, they will never have another chance. I certainly intend on a future occasion to apply the same method, but I shall always take care that the names of the Committee are not published or known in advance. I shall have no hesitation in stating afterwards who the gentlemen were, but I intend to change them on each occasion and never to let the names be known beforehand. I think I may fairly say that this method appears likely to prove a real success.

The subject then dropped.