Improving life expectancy and private vs public education

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2006

In the summer of 1944, coinciding with D-Day and the arrival of the first ‘doodle-bug’ flying-bomb, I learned that I had passed the 11 plus exam and had secured a place at Chepstow Grammar School. Thirty-seven years later, we held the first reunion of the ‘Class of ‘44’ and we have been meeting annually ever since.

At first, barely a dozen people attended our gatherings, and we thought that boredom and the Grim Reaper would soon reduce our numbers further, forcing us to wind-up our club. It hasn’t happened like that – at the 25th anniversary a few weeks ago, no less than 71 alumni turned up, a number slightly less than our now average age.


The increase in life expectancy due to scientific advances

I am expected to give a short address on these occasions and my theme this time was the importance of science and engineering and the poor state of recruitment to these disciplines. I opened by stating that the ability to assemble such a large gathering of septuagenarians represented a triumph for modern medicine. If we could by some magic be transported backwards in time by, say, 50 years, but retain the same ages we have now, then more than half of us would be pushing up the daisies!

I suggested that the increase in longevity had more to do with the creativity of research scientists who had discovered life-enhancing and life-extending drugs than it had to do with the GPs who sometimes merely prescribe the appropriate pill from their pharmacopoeia, which their profession had often played little part in helping to develop.


The negatives of increased life expectancy

Of course, increasing longevity has its downside – collapsing pension funds, for example, and burgeoning NHS costs – a problem exacerbated by recent huge increases in doctors’ pay. On the question of medics’ salaries, there has never been any shortage of high-class students wanting to study medicine, and many foreign doctors would love to move to this country and share the prosperity of one of the world’s highest paid medical practitioners.

In contrast, because young people are not coming forward in sufficient numbers to study science and engineering, many excellent departments in these disciplines are closing all over the country. If market forces were allowed to operate, it would be scientists and engineers, and not the doctors, who could look forward to receiving six-figure annual salaries at quite a young age.


Public vs private school education

It is a sobering thought that our contemporaries who had failed the 11 plus were condemned to spend a few more desultory years at the primary school before being pitched, inadequately educated, into the job market. Compared to them, we grammar school students were privileged. There were, however, some subtle influences which restricted our ambitions. The professional people in the county generally chose to send their children to the public school at Monmouth, and the absence of doctors and lawyers among the parents may explain why there are no consultants or barristers among our alumni. Oxford and Cambridge were also thought too posh for us.

I am writing about secondary education as it was some 60 years ago, but has it changed that much? Still today, only seven per cent of our children attend public school, but the private sector accounts for almost half the intake of Oxbridge.

According to the Sutton Trust, 70% of top barristers were educated privately, as were 54% of leading journalists and a third of our MPs. When you see Jeremy Paxman or Jon Snow on television interviewing Tony Blair, David Cameron or Menzies Campbell, what you are actually observing is a conversation between a couple of ex-public schoolboys for the benefit of the 93%, which comprises the rest of us.


Further information

The Sutton Trust