Onwards, not upwards, for the class of 2004

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The other day I was out for a ramble when I came across a group of schoolchildren at the base of a 40ft cliff. The teacher was clearly instructing them on its difficulties, which delighted me, as one hears so much these days about children not being allowed to risk outdoor activities. So I hurried nearer to eavesdrop.

The other day I was out for a ramble when I came across a group of schoolchildren at the base of a 40ft cliff. The teacher was clearly instructing them on its difficulties, which delighted me, as one hears so much these days about children not being allowed to risk outdoor activities. So I hurried nearer to eavesdrop.

"Jackson!" he was saying. "How would you assess the risks of this particular climb? I'm talking about the ascent on the left-hand side."

"Sir, what kind of party are we talking about ?"

"Oh, four fairly experienced climbers, and a novice."

"Female?"

"All male."

Jackson looked up at the climb. "I'd estimate individual premiums of £150 per day, sir."

"Good. Any comments on that? - Yes, you, Purbright!"

"Sir, wouldn't you build weather variables into that? I mean, wouldn't you charge less for good weather, more for bad?"

"No, you wouldn't, Purbright, because - yes, Axminster?"

"Because, sir, weather changes so quickly in the hills that you would have to charge bad weather premiums come what may."

"Good boy!"

Then he noticed the class looking at me. He looked round.

"We do have a right to be here, you know," he said. "We checked with the authorities."

"Oh, I didn't come to make trouble," I said. "I was just curious to see how you would climb the rock face."

There was laughter. "Heavens," said the teacher, "we have no intention of doing any climbing. We are an economics class doing field insurance work."

"Field insurance work ?" I said, bemused.

"Yes. Climbing has become far too expensive to get insurance for school trips, but as most of my class share my horror of heights and intend to have a career in the insurance business, what better way of getting some fresh air and practical work at the same time?"

"But don't they get any exercise? Does your school have playing fields?"

"Jackson, tell this gentleman about our playing fields."

"Well, sir, they were very useful for our exercise in land surveying and building assessment."

"Indeed they were," said the teacher. "If it had not been for your brilliant surveying, we might never have sold them off for development at the price we did."

"Pity we forgot to mention that the rugby field always got flooded in midwinter," said Jackson, and everyone roared with laughter.

"I don't understand," I said. "You have brought a class out into the wilds of the Mendips merely to give them experience of insurance?"

"That's where the money is," said the teacher. "That's why they're all going into insurance."

"Not me, sir," said another boy. "I'm going to be an actuary."

"So you are, Whitgift," said the teacher. "Well, perhaps you would like to assess this gentleman for life expectancy."

"I'd have to ask him a few questions first, sir," said Whitgift.

I gave him my age and my profession and my lifestyle, and my eating and drinking habits.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear," said Whitgift, shaking his head. "I can't think of anyone who would want to offer this man life assurance."

That night I got a call from the boy called Whitgift. "Sorry if I was a bit abrupt with you today, sir," he said, "but I've been telephoning around and I think I've found a couple of life firms who would take you on. Not cheap, but there are discounts available ..."

I put the phone down. No point getting drawn into sales pitches. But it does make you wonder about where education is headed these days.

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