There is no hiding from education. GCSEs can be taken in the mid Atlantic or on the edge of the Antarctic, courtesy of the Marine Society's College of the Sea. Simon Midgley reports
SEAFARERS have always found it hard to study because of the difficulty of keeping in touch with land-based teachers often thousands of miles distant.
Since 1938, however, a unique British institution has been helping seamen improve their qualifications through tutor-supported correspondence courses.
The College of the Sea was founded in 1938 by Dr AlbertMansbridge, who also set up the Workers' Educational Association in 1903.
Twenty years prior to establishing the college, Dr Mansbridge set up the Seafarers' Education Service to provide sailors with libraries and a continuing education service similar to the WEA for land-based workers.
By 1938 - aware of demand for student-centred tuition delivered directly to seafarers - Dr Mansbridge organised a conference that led to the inauguration of the College of the Sea.
Today the Seafarers' Education Service and the college, a pioneer of distance-learning and a precursor of the Open University, have been taken under the wing of the Lambeth-based Marine Society, the world's oldest public maritime charity.
The college, now known formally as the Marine Society College of the Sea, circulates libraries to as many as 500 merchant ships scattered all over the world. It also runs a small training ship in Chatham and advises people seeking a career at sea. And it offers distance-learning courses to seafarers scattered throughout the world.
The society and college share the premises of the former Archbishop Temple School near Lambeth Palace in London. Teaching, by the College of the Sea, is carried out by five part-time tutors who correspond with their students by post and e-mail.
Merchant Navy and Royal Navy personnel are offered tuition in GCSE and A-level subjects. Maths and English, however, are especially popular with sailors because qualifications in these subjects enhance career prospects.
The college also supports students taking Open University courses and last year it started working with Middlesex University to offer work-based degree courses for seafarers.
Some 300 students are enrolled at present - 50 per cent in the Royal Navy and the remainder in the merchant navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
As registered examination centre the society can administer exams on ships anywhere in the world.
Recent students have included two seamen serving on an Antarctic survey vessel based in New Zealand. Due to the nature of their work, they returned their GCSE maths assignments to the college tutor somewhat infrequently.
A mechanic on a tanker in the South Atlantichad trouble sending his assignments back to London because the postal services in the countries that his ship visited were unreliable. A Royal Navy diver on secondment to the US Navy recently achieved a grade A pass in GCSE English after sitting his exam in San Diego.
A leading seaman took his GCSE English exam this summer on HMS Southampton, a destroyer guarding the Falkland Islands. And three able seamen on a Scottish fisheries protection vessel, the Sulisker, this summer were took their oral GCSE English exams on board ship.
John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, started his academic career at the College of the Sea before going on to Ruskin College, Oxford.
"We provide a unique service," said Brian Thomas, the college's head of education. "There are particular difficulties about learning at sea. Lack of privacy. The obvious logistical difficulties of being away from any sources of learning materials other than those they take on board with them.
"The constant noise and vibration of the ship. Confinement in relatively small places. The work patterns. Seafarers at sea can be on call 24 hours a day.
"Many of our tutors are ex-seafarers. We are always on the look-out to expand our band of tutors but we are very selective.
"Tutors must have an affinity with the sea and empathise with the difficulties of distance learning."
The college is exploring with other organisations the possibility of developing a virtual campus for seafarers. Currently it is prohibitively expensive for sailors to access the Internet at sea. However, in 2004 a new network of 288 satellites will make such access economically feasible. This should revolutionise education at sea.
The college already offers access to some study materials via its web site - www.marine-society.org - examination syllabuses and diagnostic test papers, enrolment forms.
"We are unique among Further Education Funding Council-funded colleges," Mr Thomas added. "In that our provision is 100 per cent distance learning."