HMS Invincible has just completed a six-month voyage to the Adriatic Sea in support of British troops serving with the United Nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During this time, over 100 staff - about 10 per cent of the ship's company of 1,200 men and women - have been studying a range of GCSE subjects and are currently taking their exams.
Last week the ship was doing high-speed trials in the English Channel but exams went ahead, invigilated in the ship's classroom and the admiral's dining cabin. "Conditions were not ideal," said Commander Andrew Trevithick, in charge of education. "At 30 knots the ship vibrates and it is not the best place to concentrate on exams. But we are an examination centre like any other and we must take the papers at the same time as everyone else."
The students' ages range from 16 to 40 and their jobs from cooks to aircraft engineers and from marine engineers to radar operators. They are motivated to get qualifications for promotion, an imminent transfer to civilian life or self-development. Not least, studying is an interesting and constructive way of passing long periods of time at sea.
The courses are intensive and require a lot of homework. GCSEs are available in English, maths, general studies, physics, history and human biology. There is no assessed coursework because of the difficulties of sending it to assessors on time. Instead, the entrants sit the International GCSE exam which has an extra paper to replace the coursework done in schools.
There are 200 full-time instructor officers providing education in the Royal Navy, 50 of whom were qualified as teachers when they joined the service. Eight are on board HMS Invincible, although four have other duties too, in meteorology, oceanography, photographic and reconnaissance duties.
Invincible's education and resettlement department organises the courses under Commander Trevithick, who joined the Royal Navy in 1979 with a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education in mathematics. "My role, I suppose, equates to that of headmaster of a small, co-educational comprehensive, or college of further education."
Aircraft carriers are the only ships big enough to have separate education departments with officers teaching full-time. On a smaller ship the teaching is carried out by officers and senior rates who are paid an hourly rate for teaching in their spare time. We have some of these part-time teachers on the staff - indeed some are considering teaching as a civilian career.
Encouraging part-time teaching releases instructor officers for administration and for other departmental tasks such as resettlement and careers advice for those leaving the Navy (whether through completion of service, notice or redundancy). Advice can be given on university entrance, National Vocational Qualifications, colleges and schools.
Lessons take place in a compartment below the waterline that has the teaching facilities at one end - chalkboard, overhead projector, TV and video - and an altar at the other for when the room is used as a chapel. The compartment can accommodate 13 students in lessons run as "evening" classes from 4pm to 10pm. It also houses the ship's well-stocked library and doubles up as a room for meetings and professional training.
The provision of GCSE courses is not the only educational activity on HMS Invincible. Basic numeracy and literacy courses working towards the Naval Mathematics and English Test (NAMET) are available for staff who do not have GCSEs in maths and English.
The Navy gives grants towards the cost of A-level correspondence courses and Open University studies (14 students are currently at various stages of degrees). All GCSE students are supplied with textbooks and past papers.
At the end of July, the ship is due to return to the Adriatic and staff are already signing up for GCSE exams in November. Although schools would tend to use them for resits, on HMS Invincible this is another opportunity for personnel to improve their qualifications.
Tony Ellender is a lieutenant and course organiser in the Royal Navy.