Why am I still doing exams at my age?!

Picture the scene: a visit to the beautiful Ness Botanic Garden, on the Wirral, on a pleasant morning in June. Baby safely installed with Daddy daycare. There bright and early with the whole day ahead to enjoy. Sounds marvellous doesn’t it? Just one problem: I’m there to sit exams for an RHS Level 3 qualification in Horticulture. So really, why am I doing this to myself?

Early in life I went through the process of education first of all because I had no choice and then because it was what everyone else was doing; it was what my parents encouraged; and because it was expected to lead to more job opportunities. I went to University almost on auto-pilot (in an era when there weren’t the astronomical fees there are now) and by the end of my undergraduate degree was pretty much sick to death of formal education.

After a decade long hiatus what took me back to the familiar embrace of a classroom was my growing interest in gardening, despite at that point having never actually owned a garden. I took an evening class at Reaseheath College studying for the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture. The tutor was a jolly older gentleman called Harry – a typical ‘no nonsense’ Northerner – who drowned us in OHP slides and handouts while regaling the class with anecdotes from his lengthy career in horticulture.

I really enjoyed the course. It was great being with people who shared my burgeoning passion for plants, even though I felt like I was considerably more of a novice gardener than many of the other participants. The days that I attended college were long, but I found the course a welcome distraction from the office job, and actually something of a stress-reliever in itself. It was also the beginning of my expanding interest and understanding of the vast and fascinating subject of horticulture. Indeed one of the things I love about gardening is the almost limitless opportunity for learning new techniques and discovering new plants.

The Master Plan for my Garden Design project

At the end of the two years it took to complete the RHS Level 2 Certificate, I’d got the bug, and enrolled for a BTEC Certificate in Garden Design, also at Reaseheath College. Now this really piqued my interest. Garden Design combines the creativity of bringing together garden elements to produce an attractive space with the practicalities of accommodating all the necessary features the owner requires. The course provided an introduction to surveying a site and producing scale drawings, along with design principles and an overview of the history of garden design. I found all of this fascinating and thoroughly enjoyed working on the project that formed the assessment (no exams this time!). It also reconnected me with creative skills and interests I hadn’t really used a great deal since completing an A Level in Art & Design.

The ringbinder of doom

I’d covered the basics but I really wanted to learn about garden design in more depth. Unfortunately by this point I’d changed jobs to one with a fairly long commute in the opposite direction to the College so more evening classes were out of reach. There are however quite a number of distance learning courses available in garden design so I signed up for one of these through KLC School of Design, based in London. The course materials came in an intimidating hefty ring binder (green, natch) and were certainly comprehensive, while the assessment was based around six multi-faceted projects.

I struggled with the distance learning format from the start. I found it difficult to commit the time required to generate any momentum with the course materials, and with no deadlines it was too easy to put off submitting the project work. There was no pro-active tutor support provided and although there were peer support groups organised by students in different locations I just never found the opportunity to engage with them. Although distance learning can seem a good solution to fitting study in around work commitments, in practice I found it an isolated and dissatisfying experience. I managed to submit one project, which went ok but took a looong time, and after faffing at the second project I eventually admitted defeat.

This may just be my perception but it feels as if accessing adult education is becoming more difficult. Granted for those who are comfortable with distance learning there are a wide range of flexible options available, but I prefer the structure and interactivity of face-to-face study. There are relatively few land-based colleges in the country which means for many they require a lot of travel, and the evening class format that I had the pleasure of a few years ago now appears largely unavailable. Meanwhile, the majority of private garden design schools which I’ve seen advertised are based in the South of England and are therefore inaccessible for someone like me who lives in the North.

IMG_0993In order to attend the course I am currently taking I needed to talk my boss into letting me take Wednesday afternoons off to go to Ness Botanic Garden. I don’t work in Horticulture so she was under no particular obligation to agree to me going off to pursue my hobby every week, but she did. The class is attended by people from North Wales, Staffordshire and Greater Manchester as Ness is one of the few places delivering the RHS Level 3 Certificate in Horticulture in the area, so I feel lucky I’m only 20 minutes away.

Ness is a wonderful place to study horticulture providing lots of opportunities to get out and link the theory to the practice, particularly in relation to the design modules. I feel that I’ve developed my understanding and practice quite a bit in the last couple of years as a result of the course: as well as knowing the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ it has also helped to understand the ‘why’. There are parts of it I’ve found quite challenging, and aspects that I’ve had to learn about that I probably wouldn’t touch with a barge pole otherwise. Certainly in revising for these latest exams I have wondered whether I really need to understand the photosynthesis process in quite such depth in order to grow my veg at the allotment, and the answer is almost certainly no, but nor does it do me any harm.

The mediterranean border at Ness Botanic Garden, just because …

All of this is essentially a long-winded explanation of why I haven’t written as many blogs in the past few months as I was aiming to. Studying for the exams has placed quite a lot of demands on my time, particularly given that most recently I have been fitting it in around childcare. I sometimes wonder whether doing all the courses is a proxy for biting the bullet and making a radical career change, but whether or not this is the case, there is plenty I have gained:

  • Meeting people with shared interests
  • Developing my knowledge and skills
  • Challenging my existing practice
  • Introducing me to new topics, including those I probably wouldn’t have engaged with otherwise
  • Providing a stimulating diversion from the daily grind
  • Increased confidence in my gardening capability
  • A desire to keep learning more

All of this has made the studying worthwhile even if it does mean I’m still doing exams in my early 40s!

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