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The Instructor Officer Specialisation of the Royal Navy and its Trainees

A Brief History of Education and Training

Lt John Nixon RN and Lt Cdr Michael Rose RN

Royal Navy Instructor Officers' Association (RNIOA)
Revised version, 11-08-2019
© RNIOA, 2017

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Introduction Naval Ratings Artificers Officers Children attending Royal Naval Schools The Demise of the Instructor Officer Specialisation Acknowledgements References


The history of learning how to perform one's duties in the Royal Navy can be broadly separated into 'training' and 'education', and trainee type: ratings, artificers, officers, and the children of RN personnel attending Royal Naval Schools overseas.

The origins of the Instructor Officer (IO) Specialisation date back to 1702 and lie within two separate teaching/training branches, known as 'schoolmasters' and 'instructors'. A key development occurred in 1918 by Order in Council as follows: Chief Naval Instructor became Instructor Captain; Naval Instructor of 15 years' seniority became Instructor Commander; Naval Instructor of eight years' seniority became Instructor Lieutenant Commander; Naval Instructor of six years' seniority became Instructor Lieutenant.

To distinguish different branches from the General List (GL) of Executive Officers, who had no coloured cloth between their stripes, various colours had been introduced after 1863: Surgeons (scarlet); Instructors (light blue); Paymasters (white); Ordnance (blue); Engineers (purple); Electrical (green). The Royal Navy finally abolished coloured stripes in May 1955, except for those who needed to be clearly recognisable as non-combatant under the Geneva Convention. These included medical and dental officers and civilian officers required to wear uniform.

The instructor and schoolmaster branches were amalgamated in 1946 to form the Instructor Officer (IO) Specialisation, and were thence known as 'Schoolies'. They would go on to undertake a wide range of specialist appointments in Meteorology and Oceanography (METOC), Education and Resettlement, Information Systems (IS), Management Training, and many other areas. IOs joined the specialisation via multiple pathways but Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth, Royal Naval College (RNC) Greenwich, HMS Drake and HMS Victory were the most common entry establishments during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The education received by IOs while under training varied over time but included parade drills, leadership, basic seamanship, navigation, Morse Code, naval history, service writing and wardroom etiquette. Specialist teacher training covered speaking in public and instructional techniques. Initial seniority depended on qualifications on entry; a good honours degree (1st or 2-1) earned four years seniority in the rank of Lieutenant, a 2-2 or lower degree would gain direct entry as a Lieutenant, with a teacher training certificate (Cert Ed) being the minimum qualification to enter as a Sub-Lieutenant. Past teaching or equivalent experience in years also added to seniority up to a maximum of four years as a Lieutenant.

In the following sections we expand on the role of Instructor Officers from the perspective of education and training with respect to trainee type, and in doing so make use of our own experience as RNIOs, as well as other reliable sources.

Naval Ratings

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the training of naval ratings, principally as seamen and gunners, was conducted on board active ships at sea and alongside in harbour, using on the job training methods. However, in the mid-nineteenth century the Admiralty became aware of the increased professionalism required in its sailors due to advances in technology, changes in construction materials such as wood to steel, heavy (traversable) gun turrets, and the transition from sail to steam propulsion. As part of the Admiralty's response, five old laid-up hulks in different ports around the country were converted to training ships to accommodate volunteers aged between 15 and 17. These recruits usually had only elementary levels of schooling and were required to pass an entrance exam. They spent one year being trained for future service in the Navy by non-commissioned and commissioned officers, with a strong emphasis on the former class of instructor due to their long period of service and associated experience. One famous 'hulk' was the 1866 warship HMS Ganges, an 84-gun second rate ship of the line, which became the boys' training ship anchored in Falmouth harbour, before moving on to Harwich and later Shotley in the county of Suffolk.

Training establishments

The Training Ship HMS Ganges 1886 (Public Domain); Instructor Officers HMS Ganges School, 1948 (HMS Ganges Museum);
HMS Ganges Ceremonial Guard march past, 1969 (John Nixon)

In 1905 training moved to a shore-based establishment of the same name at Shotley Gate, driven by the increasing demands for expertise in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, radio telegraphy and cryptography, and guided gunnery systems. The Navy therefore increasingly required new entrants to undergo relatively long periods of training ashore prior to joining ships of the fleet. The academic elements of naval training therefore required a more professional and university-educated branch of 'scientist' instructors, who would go on to teach in Royal Navy shore training establishments, including new recruitment establishments such as HMS Ganges, HMS St. Vincent and HMS Raleigh, and specialist (departmental) training establishments later emerged such as HMS Collingwood (Electrical Engineering), HMS Sultan (Mechanical Engineering), HMS Mercury (Communications), HMS Excellent (Seamanship/Gunnery) among several others including Submarine and Fleet Air Arm training establishments.

Naval ratings at new-entry establishments were taught naval history and the NAMET (Naval Maths and English Test) by Instructor Officers, as well as Ordinary Levels ('O' Levels) in various subjects that ratings could study in their own time or under instruction. In order to progress beyond 'Able Rating', trainees had to achieve a NAMET score of 5/5. Depending on the department that ratings were assigned to, they undertook what was known as 'Part 1 training' in the new-entry establishment before moving to their respective department's training establishments to complete Part 2 training in order to qualify them for service as junior ratings in the fleet. Those not joining as boy entrants underwent a shorter training period at HMS Raleigh, before undergoing further training at their alma mater establishments. In 1983 at HMS Sultan, the typical rating trainee joined the Navy with four CSEs and one 'O' Level at the age of 17, received six weeks Part 1 training at HMS Raleigh, up to 24 weeks Part 2 and Part 3 training in Marine Engineering, which included specialist training in either the electrical or mechanical sub-specialisations, and training aboard the harbour training ship before further training and subsequently joining the fleet. In order to progress through their careers, ratings were required to take Preliminary Professional Exams (PPE), mostly conducted at sea using a panel of examiners, before completing qualifying courses ashore at the level of Leading Rate, Petty Officer, Chief Petty Officer or Fleet Chief Petty Officer. By acquiring extra qualifications, promotions and experience, ratings had opportunities to transfer to artificer status through the 'Mechanician' apprenticeship route, and become either Special Duties Officers or Instructor Officers (Sultan the Movie, 1985).

Ratings could also study in their own time to obtain additional educational qualifications such as 'O' Levels and City & Guilds in Engineering or Electrical Theory, for example. None of the above could have been achieved without the educational input of Instructor Officers.


In 1868 the need for a specialised department to educate and train engineers for an increasingly mechanised and professionalised navy led to a scheme that allowed qualified engineers to be recruited into the Royal Navy directly from industry, with the rate of Chief Petty Officer. Their official title became 'Engine Room Artificer'. This led to the creation of the Royal Navy Artificer - a job title and not a rank. At the turn of the century there was also a growing need for specialist electricians in the fleet and the Electrical Artificer was introduced and Admiral Sir John "Jackie" Fisher, the First Sea Lord, instigated a scheme for the training of 15-16 year old Boy Artificers in 1903 after becoming aware of the technological advances being made by the German Imperial Navy.

The first entry of 26 boys came exclusively from the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich, and were accommodated at Chatham in the Reserve ship Algiers and initially instructed ashore at the Steam Reserve Factory. Artificers would become the 'better educated' artisans among non-commissioned Royal Navy personnel with the skills to repair and maintain mechanical and electrical equipment under the most demanding of situations. Due to the growing complexity of naval gunnery systems the category of Ordnance Artificer was introduced in 1919 and made up of volunteer Engine Room Artificers and selected armourers. The Artificer category of Shipwright, responsible for general maintenance to the structure and general systems of the ship, was introduced in 1948. To recognise their 'elite' status among non-commissioned officers, artificers did not wear square rig as in the case of ratings, and promotion was rapid up to Chief Petty Officer and Warrant Officer, with good opportunities to become Special Duties Officers.

As with naval ratings at HMS Ganges, training hulks were initially utilised and HMS Indus, a complex of old hulks moored in the Tamar near Torpoint, was used to commence artificer training in 1906, while a year earlier the Hulks Audacious and Erebus were moored in Fareham Creek and commissioned as the Boy Artificer Training Establishment, HMS Fisgard. Although artificers would always continue to have an element of their training conducted in harbour training ships, and undergo sea training for about three months, initial training was eventually split between the two new purpose-built establishments at Rosyth in Scotland and Torpoint in Cornwall that were respectively named HMS Caledonia and HMS Fisgard. Artificers were highly skilled as they underwent a five-year formal apprenticeship in skill of hand and specialist training both at HMS Fisgard and their 'parent' training establishment. In April 1983, Mechanicians (former mechanics that received two years of technical and craft training which led to the same academic qualifications) were also given the classification of artificer although their training remained entirely separate but their jobs (such as Charge Chief Petty Officers) were interchangeable. In the same year HMS Fisgard was closed and artificers undertook basic training at HMS Raleigh before their four-year period of training and education in their alma mater establishments (such as HMS Sultan for Marine Engineering Artificer Apprentices) that comprised their apprenticeship.

In 1985 the typical Marine Engineering Artificer Apprentice joined at the age of 17 and had five 'O' Levels. His apprenticeship lasted for three years and eight months and consisted of workshop (largely delivered by Instructor Senior Ratings) and academic training (largely delivered by Instructor Officers) to develop skill of hand using precision machinery and work towards professional qualifications (BTEC Diploma).

HMS Fisgard

The Artificer Training Hulks HMS Fisgard 1905; HMS Fisgard Training Establishment 1950,
Artificers, their officers and Instructors, September 1948 (The Fisgard Association)

Ten weeks in a harbour training ship under sea-going conditions preceded specialist training (delivered by Instructor Officers, Engineering Officers and Senior Ratings), leadership training, sea training for three months, and maintenance of Gas Turbine engines and control units. On completion of training they attained the status of Leading Marine Engineering Artificer and left for service in the fleet. They could expect rapid promotion through Petty Officer, Chief Petty Officer, Fleet Chief Petty Officer and many would attain a commission as Engineering Officers (Sultan the Movie, 1985).

Instructor Officers played a key role in the education and training of artificers, whose skills, intelligence and aptitude were widely recognised by those who taught them.


Royal Navy Officers before and during the eighteenth century were trained and educated either directly aboard active ships of the fleet, or at the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth (1733-1837). Born in 1758 in Norfolk, Horatio Nelson is the most prominent example of the latter as his commission, like all officer entrants of that era, was gained through 'nomination' by a Captain in the Royal Navy who was his uncle. Nominations were also granted by Flag officers, Commodores First Class, and members of the royal family. To pass the entrance 'exam', nominees simply had to know the 'rule of three', namely: if a roll of cloth costs two shillings how much would three rolls cost? They also had to write out the Lord's Prayer, and drink a glass of sherry. Nelson joined his first ship, HMS Raisonnable, in the trainee rank of Midshipman at the tender of age of 12, and reached the rank of Captain by the time he was only 20 years old.

RN establishments

Horatio Nelson's first ship, HMS Raisonnable (Public Domain); Royal Naval Academy Portsmouth (1733-1837) (Colin Smith),
BRNC Dartmouth (Forces Network) (1863-present), RNC Greenwich (1873-1998) (Martin Falbisoner)

King William IV (the 'Sailor King') expressed the dominant view of the superiority of ship-borne training when he stated "there was no place superior to the quarterdeck of a British man of war for the education of a gentleman".

The three principal officer training colleges, apart from the Royal Naval Academy, were BRNC Dartmouth (now the only active training establishment for officers), RNC Greenwich and the Royal Naval Engineering College (RNEC) Manadon for training as Marine Engineering or Electrical Engineering Officers. Osborne RNC, on the Isle of Wight, also trained new-entry officers between 1903 and 1921. Naval officers' training in Dartmouth commenced in 1863, when the training hulks Britannia and Hindostan were first moored in the River Dart. Situated high on a hill above the town of Dartmouth in Devon, the present shore-based BRNC Dartmouth has been training Royal Naval officers on this site since 1905. By the 1970s the number of graduate entrants had significantly increased and the range of courses continued to expand. Although BRNC Dartmouth had traditionally trained officer cadets and new-entry graduates, the training of Special Duties Officers and Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) Officers moved to BRNC in the late 1970s. The training of female Naval Officers was integrated into that of their male counterparts in 1990 and the Special Duties Officers' Greenwich course moved to Dartmouth in 1996. These developments therefore united a number of previously disparate officer categories within the same college environment.

In the case of RNEC Manadon, under the familiar demands and adaptations caused by the transition from sail to steam propulsion, the training for Engineers' Boys in Royal Dockyard workshops alongside Dockyard apprentices commenced in 1838. In 1843, the Royal Dockyard Schools were founded at Woolwich, Sheerness, Portsmouth and Devonport and in 1863 a more formal scheme of training was introduced for these Engineers' Boys, now known as Engineer Students. HMS Marlborough, a warship hulk used as an accommodation ship, was later replaced in 1880 by a school for 'Engineer Students' at RNC Keyham in Devonport. Trainees spent five years living at the college, and undergoing training in workshops around the dockyard, before spending a further two years at Greenwich college before being assigned to ships as Assistant Engineers. The whole of the RNEC complex (100 acres) was commissioned in 1946 as HMS Thunderer. With training consolidated at RNEC Manadon, its facilities and courses catered for all the Royal Navy's Engineer Officers.

RNEC Manadon

RNEC Manadon in the 1950s (Kit Reeve, RNEC)

Those undergoing education and training at Manadon included graduate-entry General List (GL) officers entering from BRNC Dartmouth, students who had entered at the age of 18 with 'A' Levels and would complete their degrees at Manadon, Special Duties (SD) officers who had been promoted from the lower decks, and ratings who had been selected for officer training as engineers through what was known as the 'Upper Yardman Scheme'. As with ratings and artificers, many trainees came from Commonwealth or other countries' navies, and others were from non-engineering branches (such as Instructor Officers undergoing specialist training). Again, consistent with major changes in the size of the fleet and various efficiency drives, although RNEC Manadon had developed impressively over the decades it was closed in 1995. From that point on, Engineering Officers were to be educated at civilian universities and at the Navy's specialist establishments in the Portsmouth area.

Instructor Officers, who taught officers at all four Royal Navy Colleges and all the alma mater shore training establishments, required a high level of academic qualifications and teaching experience in order to deliver the educational elements of officers' training. Schoolies, especially at Manadon, were therefore often educated to Master's degree or PhD level at civilian universities prior to joining the Navy, or indeed at RNEC Manadon itself, which had university status. The history of the IO Specialisation, and meteorology as a significant sub-specialisation, reveal the breadth and depth of work undertaken by Instructor Officers.

Children attending Royal Naval Schools

Providing education for the children of Royal Navy personnel stationed abroad had always created challenges for the Admiralty. The solution, aside from the option of private school education, was the introduction of 'local' Royal Naval Schools. In his research into their development, Instructor Captain M F Law described the situation in Malta (Tal-Handaq website) based on an article in the Malta Times dated 19 October 1858, which reported that arrangements had been made by the Admiralty for the establishment of a dockyard school in Malta 'for the use of children (boys and girls) of all persons employed in Her Majesty's Dockyard and Naval Establishments'. The first headmaster, Mr Sullivan, was appointed from the UK and instruction included provision for an afternoon and evening school for dockyard apprentices.

During the 20th century other RN schools emerged in Malta itself (Tal-Handaq and Verdala), Mauritius, Gibraltar, Singapore and Malaya. Most were led by Schoolie headmasters and deputy headmasters, with other Instructor Officers, their wives when qualified to do so, UK-recruited Admiralty civilians and local civilians all potentially serving on the teaching staff. The settings of these institutions were idyllic in many ways for both teachers and pupils alike, but it is clear that teaching duties could sometimes cover a wide spectrum. This is reflected in an account by Instructor Lieutenant Commander Richard Wood, RN, whose last appointment was at HMS Mauritius (on the island of Mauritius) where he was in charge and Headmaster of the RN Children's School in the late 1920s.

Malta photos

HMS Sheffield, HMS Ceylon & White Star Vessel Brittanic, Valletta Harbour (Malta), 1958 (Martin Powell)
Headmaster & pupils RN School at HMS Mauritius (Keith Oldroyd) c. 1974; Staff of Tal-Handaq RN School Malta, 1960 (Martin Powell)

The school catered for all ages and in his two-year appointment numbers rose rapidly from 35 to 70. He was also required to teach ratings taking RN educational exams in mainly Maths, Science, Naval History and English (Royal Naval Education). Later, teaching GCE 'O' and 'A' Levels in RN schools was common.

The images above capture the essence of Instructor Officers working in Royal Naval Schools, and record some of the iconic 'imagery' of Valletta harbour, Malta, in its heyday (Verdala school is just visible on the skyline).

The Demise of the Instructor Officer Specialisation

This brief summary is based on an account provided in the history section of Not Just Chalk and Talk (Abram & Binks, 2012), and correspondence with those who were members of the associated Officers Study Group (OSG).

In 1994 an OSG, under the guidance of the 2nd Sea Lord, was set up to consider ways of achieving economies of scale and scope under increasing financial pressures and the effects of a shrinking fleet. This latter point meant that officers in particular branches had fewer opportunities to serve in training establishments in meaningful jobs, which would also provide necessary breaks from sea time. Following the recommendations of the OSG, the Navy Board took the decision to disband the Instructor Specialisation in pursuit of what was known as a Platform Derived Structure (PDS) - 'platform' referring to ships at sea.

The OSG considered that the platform specialisations (Seaman, Engineer and Supply) would be able and willing to absorb the essential skills provided by 'non-platform-derived officers', such as Instructors. This response affirmed that the OSG's philosophy of the increased use of civilians and a greater use of PDS officers in training jobs was sound, and that most of the Instructor requirement could be met by these means. The rationale for the decision would later be regarded as short-sighted by many as the IO Specialisation and its two predecessor branches had, for centuries, provided an entry route that allowed the Royal Navy to recruit mature graduates quickly for required jobs. The Short Service Commission entry afforded to IOs gave manpower planners the ability to cost-effectively respond rapidly to changes in the skills needed by the navy, and to retain those who had the potential to deliver the required skills.

However, in early 1995 the Naval Secretary put in motion plans for the rebranding of 'Instructor' skills, with transition arrangements for serving officers. This was subsequently achieved and the Instructor Specialisation, which had existed in one form or another since the 17th Century, ceased to be on 6 July 1996. Instructor Officers who were serving at that time had the opportunity to transfer into PDS branches and a strategy was developed that reduced over 580 Instructor Officers to a Training Management Specialisation of about 200 within the Engineering Specialisation, E(TM); the remaining 380 posts were civilianised, deleted or transferred to other Specialisations. Training and education also migrated towards tri-service provision, while those IOs who specialised in Meteorology and Oceanography were amalgamated into the Seaman branch, categorised as X(METOC). A third category for Information Systems' officers became E(IS). The first direct entry E(TM) officers occurred in 1997.

For those of us who served as Schoolies, our task of facilitating the career advancement and educational enrichment of all four categories of trainees, along with the many sub-specialisations of work which the branch undertook, was indeed a worthwhile and fulfilling experience as captured in the 'Analects of Confucius':

Is it not indeed a pleasure to acquire knowledge and constantly to exercise oneself therein?


We are grateful to Commander Mike Channon OBE RN for his suggestions on this revised version.


Abram, T (Captain RN) & Binks, P (Captain RN), 'Not Just Chalk and Talk:Stories of Schoolies in the Royal Navy', 2012 (DVD version).

BRNC Dartmouth: History

Confucius, 'The Analects', Penguin Classics, 2014.

HMS Ganges Association

Hart, K (Commander RN), 'Naval Education History'

Howson, L and Nixon, J (Lieutenant RN), 'Intercepted at Sea: The Human Cost of Insecure Naval Communications During Two World Wars', Woodfield Publishing, Bognor Regis, 2006.

Law, M F (Captain RN), 'History of the Royal Naval School'

Nixon J (Lieutenant RN) & Newman P (Lieutenant Commander RN), 'Sultan the Movie', 1985, Wessex Film & Sound Archive, Hampshire Record Office, Winchester.

RNEC Manadon

Royal Naval Education

Royal Naval School Tal-Handaq, Malta

The Fisgard Association

Wikipedia Contributors, 2017, 'Britannia Royal Naval College'

Wikipedia Contributors, 2017, 'Royal Naval College, Greenwich'

Wikipedia Contributors, 2017, 'Royal Navy'

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