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Once upon a time, when I had no money

Index ID: ONUPT — Publication date: October 21st, 2001

Note: Published on Sunday Times.

In 1994, when I was 29, I set out to obtain a Postgraduate Certificate in education in Modern Languages. I felt cautiously confident; I was, after all, a languages graduate with a couple of years’ experience teaching abroad. True, I did not expect to plunge back into Higher Education with the ease of my 18-year-old self. In 1983 the procedure had been very straightforward: you just had to fill in the UCCA form, achieve the required a-level grades, pick up your grant cheque at the start of term, and lie to your parents about the state of your overdraft until the next cheque came. It never occurred to me at 18 that I might not get the education I wanted; in fact, I took it for granted that I was not only going to get a degree but also make fascinating friends, meet devastatingly attractive men, write a novel, join the feminist society, drink and smoke and wear ludicrously large earrings.

Eleven years on, however, higher education had no frivolous attractions for me at all. The qualification I needed to get back to teaching seemed to be my one and only hope of escaping a situation in which I had never dreamt I would find myself. I had returned to Britain just before Christmas 1993 following the break-up of my marriage, with a baby daughter in one arm and a suitcase-full of clothes and Harry Ootter drafts in the other. By January the last of my savings had gone on a deposit to rent a flat, a cot, a highchair and a pushchair: my daughter Jessica and I were facing life on slightly less than £70 a week. I certainly wanted to finish my novel, but I did not feel that this was the moment to give up the day job – or, at least, give up looking for one; it is one thing to choose to starve for your art, quite another to force your six-month-old baby to as well. As I saw it, the PGCE was my way out; it would lead to work, an income, bills paid, decent accommodation, everything that I had until so recently taken for granted, everything that was last on my mind when we were all 18, when debts were easily repaid by summer jobs, and privation meant not being able to afford the suede pixie boots on which I had (tragically) set my heart.

I look back on the innocent optimism with which I filled in my application forms for teacher training colleges with nostalgic pity. The reality of my situation had yet to sink in. Perhaps that was all to the good, because if I had known then the obstacles that lay in my way to employment, I might have ripped up the forms there and then. Instead I ploughed on, getting some satisfaction from the mere form filling, feeling that I was doing something vaguely akin to work in itself. I received a letter in due course from the teaching college of my choice giving me an interview date and I distinctly saw the speck of light at the end of the tunnel widen into a beam. But then, as so often happens in life, I found myself waistdeep in a problem I hadn’t seen coming, though how I could have missed it is still incredible to me. I can only say in mitigation that I was an utter novice at being a single parent and that I was still happily convinced that people who wanted to work would be encouraged, if not assisted, by the state. I had several sharp lessons coming to me.

The teaching college in question was my preferred option because I had been told that it had a student creche. It was during an unrelated telephone call to the college in question that a secretary told me casually that this had closed two years previously. I had the sensation of having been hit very hard over the head with a blunt instrument. When the initial effects of this blow had subsided I began to make appointments with everybody I could think of who might be able to show me the way to procure fulltime childcare on a student grant. Still punch-drunk, I refused to accept the answer until I had run out of telephone numbers. Then I had to face it: if I couldn’t afford childcare then I could not take my PGCE. It had simply never occurred to me (and here we plumb the depths of my naivety) that the state was not prepared to help with a year’s childcare costs in exchange for never having to pay me a penny’s benefit again. Now, at last, the reality dawned on me: the reason I was trying so hard to claw myself out of poverty – my daughter – was going to be the very thing that kept me there. Or it would have been, had I not been extraordinarily lucky.

A friend, finding me desolate after the last fruitless telephone call, offered to lend me the money for a private nursery. Neither of us ever thought I would be in a position to pay the money back within two years. My friend was simply sparing my pride in calling it a loan, when it was far more likely to be an outright gift. So I went off to teacher training college for what was the toughest year of my life in terms of sleep deprivation and unremitting work. I was terrified of further debt and did not take out a student loan until my second term, when it became impossible to keep myself in bus fares and books without one. the college had hardship funds, too; I felt sorry for the poor people who needed them until another student pointed out bluntly that I was exactly the sort of person for whom the fund was designed. I was past feeling humiliated by this point and meekly trotted off to fill in yet another form. I completed my PGCE in the summer of 1995 and started teaching the following autumn.

As it turned out, I only taught for a year before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. so was it all a waste of time? Well, no – the taxpayer got a good deal as I never needed benefits again and, if you take the broad view, my PGCE enabled me to pay back all the benefit i’d ever been given because without the open access computers I would never have been able to type out the manuscript. (I say this with a certain amount of shame, because there was a notice on the wall saying to be used for college work only). My story, of course, has an almost indecently happy ending. I had three years of real financial hardship, but I was luckier than many lone parents, not least in having friends who could afford to step in. Even so, I will never forget the feeling of absolute hopelessness that results from the knowledge that however much you want to retrain, however badly you want to work, your opportunities are limited and in some cases denied completely.

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