People held Royal Dockyard apprenticeships in high regard. Not only would they offer superb craft training, but they could also open up opportunities. Throughout most of the twentieth century Dockyard apprenticeships lasted 5 years. The Admiralty shortened them to 4 years in the 1970s and to 3 years by the 1980s. At the end of each year the apprentices had to sit competitive exams. These increased in difficultly and each time fewer apprentices passed them. The best apprentices were eligible for the Whitworth scholarships which allowed entry into university. This gave them the opportunity to study for a professional qualification, and many entered the Royal Naval Corps of Naval Constructors.
To be accepted onto an apprenticeship school leavers would have to sit the Dockyard examination. The choice of trade apprenticeships open to school leavers was limited by the mark they achieved. The full range, including the senior trades, was only available to those who scored highly. The potential apprentices would go with their parent to the Admiral Superintendent to sign the indentures, the legal document accepting the terms of the apprenticeship. They were then able to select their trade from a list on a blackboard. Those with the highest grades went first. As there were a limited number of apprenticeships available within each trade this method ensured the brightest students could have the widest choice.
When apprentices started in the Dockyard the stores department issued toolboxes, containing the basic tools of the trade. In the first half of the twentieth century shipwright apprentices would be given the timber to make their own toolboxes which was one of the first tasks they would face on their apprenticeships.
Most apprentices would spend the first year of their apprenticeship learning the basic skills of their trade using hand tools such as files, chisels, saws and scrapers. These are some of the test pieces made by coppersmith apprentices in the late 1970s.
From the second year onwards apprentices would spend some time in workshops and then work alongside instructors in 6 month blocks. The Admiralty gave tradesman extra money for being instructors. The instructors wanted their charges to do well and they allowed them to hide away on ships or in corners of the workshops in order to study.