The key to life

Education really can open doors. It did for Mavis Cheek, and even does for the hard-nut prisoners sh

I was lucky to go to college when I was in my mid-twenties - more than 25 years ago - for in those days mature students were encouraged. Once a place was offered, a state grant was mandatory and the amount was age-related. At over 25, I received a bigger grant, which sounds like a fairy story now and meant I could give up paid work and not be paupered. For my self-esteem, it meant that instead of remaining a working-class dork who failed the 11 plus, went to a secondary modern B stream, learnt how to be a good clerk typist (keep your nails short, be amenable to anything your boss requires, and be careful with personal hygiene - I never knew if these were connected) and then left school at 16, I was encouraged to blossom. Interviewed for a radio programme while I was a student, I said it was like unlocking door after door, and understanding that education was the key to life. Of course it is. But I do mean education and not skills. Skills are good but limited. Education is the manure of life.

I went to Hillcroft College for Mature Women. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who scuppered plans for more further education colleges of its kind, Hillcroft remains unique in its statutory role as a place for women to get their second bite at the educational cherry. How badly let down we all felt. A woman prime minister legislating against the education of women. She also took against the Open University. Unforgivable.

The age range at Hillcroft was early twenties to early sixties (Ursula, at 63, went on to take a degree at York and complained bitterly that they wouldn't let her join the flying club). We had to pass a short written test (much easier than the 11 plus) and an interview. I studied art history, English literature, history of western civilisation and political ideas. Best course in the world.

Our tutors eased away residual fears of school and moved us into college thinking - they nurtured us in those first difficult days. We felt we had time. Alas, even Hillcroft has now succumbed to short courses - a year being the longest you can study there, and more of the programme being skills-based. In my day, there was time (though it scarcely felt like it) to explore a subject before specialising. In our first year in English, for example, we went from Greeks, medieval and Enlightenment right through to Eliot and Plath. In that first year I grew my wings. One-year courses can only be a taster.

After Hillcroft, and about to read English at Goldsmiths, it was wonderful to discover that my queasiness during finals was pregnancy. When my daughter was born, I wanted to be at home with her - at the same time I was surrounded by all those newly opened doors. What to do? The huge confidence of Hillcroft's legacy, plus the zeitgeist of women's liberation, allowed me the impudence to ask: "What can I do to be at home with this baby?" And answer: "I'll be a writer." Never having had much money helped. It gave me the grit to work at it - satin knickers could come later. Instead of learning skills and taking a job and bringing in a bit of low pay, I gave myself until Bella started junior school to become good enough to be published. For those years, we lived very close to the financial bone. Luckily it worked. I had my first novel published in the year that Bella began Juniors.

Now I go into prison on a voluntary basis and teach creative writing, and what I see there is reflected in my own experience. Bright, overlooked, unconfident men who are suddenly given the opportunity to learn grow wings, and dare to fail. It helps to be able to tell them that I, too, was once designated thick by a very silly system. My prisoners have written some brilliant stuff, and perhaps it gives them back some self-esteem. In prison, whatever the media may say, there isn't a lot of self-esteem around. I get letters from some who are now out remembering the pleasure - why not? - that writing gave them.

The prison education system is hard-pressed (maybe if prisoners had the vote, governments would take it more seriously), but my publisher, Faber, was generous and donated to each man in the group a copy of DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little - which they all relished. Only afterwards did I tell them that they had just read and discussed critically the latest Booker Prize winner . . . a good moment. In last year's Koestler Awards (the Koestler Foundation was set up to bring arts into prisons), four of the group won prizes for their writing. And one of the full-time tutors at the prison said that when she stopped one of the harder nuts in the corridor, he rushed off saying: "Sorry, Miss - got to go. Got to get my writing homework done . . ."

I've no solutions for the appalling drop-out rates for boys and girls in ordinary education, but I do know that if there is something available for them second time around, it can work. See me.

Mavis Cheek's latest novel is Patrick Parker's Progress (Faber)