I was born in Southeast London into what is termed the ‘Boomers’ generation in 1964. I spent several months in Great Ormond Street hospital and wasn’t expected to survive. Fortunately, I did and went to live with a foster mother, Mrs Agnew for a period of time. Of course, I was too young to remember much except a vague memory, but I can still see her face. I returned to live with my parents in Peckham, where we lived at my grandparents’ home. Sometime later moved into a housing association flat nearby. There were numerous moves to different flats and houses until my parents decided to move to Newhaven in East Sussex. I was 12 years old and this meant leaving behind all my friends and everything I knew, which I was extremely distressed about.

I started to rebel and became what my mother described as a ‘nightmare teenager’. I didn’t like school and was bullied by gangs, which caused me to get into fights and I was often blamed for anything ‘bad’, that happened in the school. On one occasion I was suspended for my involvement in something that happened and I wasn’t even at school that day. In August 1979, I was taken to the school gate by the headmaster and told never to return to his school, adding that I would never amount to anything in my miserable life.

That was my last day at school. I left with no ‘O’ levels or qualifications and not much hope. 1979 was a time of high unemployment and little prospects, a clear message being sung about by all the Punk and new wave bands from that era. What are you going to do? was my parents’ question. My mother woke me at 7 am every morning and locked me out until 5 pm, telling me to go find myself a job. I didn’t know what to do and it all felt hopeless.

I found a job doing the washing up in a big industrial kitchen locally by walking in and asking if they had any work available. The job was at least something. I liked the people I worked with and when people went off sick or didn’t turn up, I volunteered to help on the food assembly line. The manager ‘Ron’ was a strict but kind man and became the first person I ever saw as a role model. Ron told me I had potential but that I needed to lose the ‘attitude’. He promised me that he would send me to college if I could prove to him that I could do it. This was the first time I ever had a goal or anything to aim for and the first opportunity anyone had ever offered me. I can remember going home and crying, as I told my mum what had happened.

My first day at college arrived and I was so nervous, thinking that I can’t do this. I hated school, so why would this be any better? I was wrong I enjoyed it and made new friends. Suddenly I had to write assignments and I couldn’t do it. I could only write in block capitals and had to spell the words using a dictionary, sometimes not knowing how to find them. My first assignment took me two weeks to complete. Every time I made a mistake, I screwed up the paper and started again. I was becoming disheartened and knew that I couldn’t do it but didn’t want to admit it to anyone.

The college was to undergo a quality audit of its learning programmes and some of my work was chosen by an external verifier from City & Guilds. I was also asked to make myself available in case the external verifier wanted to speak to me. The day came and I was in class and my tutor came in and asked me to come and meet the auditor. I was shaking by the time I got there and thought that the game was up and that they were going to tell me I wasn’t capable and I would have to leave.

The External Verifier sat me down and explained what she was there to do and asked me if we could discuss my work. She opened my folder and looked at my assignment and asked me how long it had taken me to write it. My first response was not too long. She looked at me and said the work I had produced was great, but she was worried that I was struggling to write it. She then asked me “how many times did you write this before it was right?”. I told her it was about the eighth or ninth time and then I sobbed because I thought they would kick me out of college. She turned to my tutor and said “this young man needs help with his reading and writing. If you can help him with that, I think you could have a star pupil”. The college arranged English and maths classes in addition to my Chef training. It was a bit challenging at first but not like school.

I will never forget what that External Verifier did for me that day. It is unlikely that she ever knew what a life-changing moment that visit to the college was for me. I will forever be grateful for her humanness and her intuitively about learning, my learning! Many years later I went on to become an External Verifier for City & Guilds and had many conversations over the years with learners and college staff about additional support for individuals based on what I could see and what I could feel. Maybe one of those learners will remember that moment with their External Verifier and could be telling a similar story.

I remember the nervousness about admitting that I couldn’t read, write or add up but I am so glad and grateful for the opportunities I have been given and the fact that there are people and employers that genuinely want to help us to be the best we can be. I loved College so much, I spent the next 7 years learning as much as I could, especially about learning to care for other people and making a difference.

Don’t ever be afraid to make the jump into learning – Best thing I ever did was face my fears

2 Responses

  1. Thankyou so much for sharing your story, it is heart warming to read that there were people who believed and supported you through your learning experience in the end!
    And how great you gave something back by becoming an External Verifier yourself!

    1. Thanks Carla. Sometimes it is just an opportunity and a supportive employer that makes all the difference. Its okay not to be good at school. I found out that college was a great place to learn and made many friends with people just like me. I hope our colleagues take the opportunity to learn not just for work but for their own life skills. (Two already have)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *