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The Price Of Everything

12/07/2017 17:07 BST | Updated 12/07/2017 17:07 BST
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'Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,' John Dewey famously said. There are so many famous soundbites about education - to paraphrase Einstein, quotations about education are what remains after one has forgotten what one googled. And yet a few dark clouds loom over education this summer, with two news stories in particular darkening its shining idealism.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that as many as three-quarters of UK graduates may never fully repay their student loans, with many still trying to repay student debt in their fifties. Since maintenance grants were replaced with loans in 2012, debt levels rose considerably to some of the highest in the developed world.

The second news story is the announcement that teachers in England and Wales would have their pay rise capped at 1% for another year: bad as this is, it's 1% more than is currently on offer for teachers in Northern Ireland. Leaders of major teachers' unions have commented that this is a real-terms pay cut of up to 13%, at a time when recruitment and retention in teaching are in crisis.

What price education, then, when graduates are in impossible debt, and teachers are quite literally undervalued? Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as 'a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing'. We can try to repay the price of education: but what about its value?

I don't think I will ever be able to repay the value of the state-funded grammar school education I had in Northern Ireland. School offered me cheerful, friendly teachers, mostly inspiring and inventive in delivering their subjects, getting me interested in studying and doing my best. I was able to be that awkward person who wanted to do extra subjects, early morning piano practice, and be in the orchestra, the choir, and backstage in the school play instead of playing hockey, netball and tennis like most others. My teachers accepted me and so did the nicest of my peers - and I learned not to mind when some thought I was odd. When I wanted to join the Modern Languages Quiz Team but avoid the all-powerful Scripture Union - I managed. When I wanted to attempt the unknown challenge of applying to Oxford - I could. Two or three of the people who taught me inspired me to become a teacher in turn, hoping I could teach 'their' subjects even half as well.

I don't think I will ever be able to repay the value of all I learned at Oxford. And I don't just mean the lectures, the tutorials, the essay crises, the exams, the year abroad to perfect my French, the academic endurance training to get through to the other side. I mean the wonderful vocabulary of odd term names and battels and the Bodleian Oath and Examination Schools and subfusc and the Bulldogs. The customs and eccentricities of life in college will stay with me when much of what I learned is long forgotten - the tutor's cat, Sebastian, who attended Shakespeare tutorials and miaowed to signal his approval of a point I made (or so she said). The friends I made and the future influentials whom I half-knew at a remove. The survival skills of living far from home, travelling, negotiating, reassuring classmates that being from Northern Ireland didn't actually make me scary. I went back to university, at home, years later: I may have repaid those fees, but I'll never repay what it meant to be studying again.

And I will never be able to repay the value of what I've learned through teaching. They say that you really only understand your subject when you have to explain it to someone else: it's true, but it's more than that. Teaching - maybe English in particular though not uniquely - makes you explore everything in your own life to help students develop everything in theirs. It's a bad week if you haven't learned something, whether that's a student telling you something unusual that they knew and you didn't, or you learning that you can do something that you'd thought impossible. You learn from colleagues, whether it's about subject teaching or teenage temperaments. You learn, at lunchtimes, everything from what to watch, to what to read, to how to survive another week.

And I know I'll never be able to repay the value of what I've learned when I'm nowhere near a school or university. When I'm learning about managing my health and well-being from people who actually care. When I'm talking to friends and family about just about everything on earth, laughing, occasionally crying, almost always drinking coffee. I'll never be able to repay what I've learned from and with my husband, living by the sea and navigating married life together, mostly steering clear of rocks and dangerous currents.

Debts like these can't take account of percentage pay rises or real-terms cuts, and can't be paid a component at a time as you grow older. These are the debts of life itself, and they're even more difficult to manage than financial burdens in a climate of austerity. Carl Jung said, 'The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.'

It doesn't take much imagination to realise that the debt we owe to the education of life itself can never be repaid.