So, the first year had been pretty poor, with an inadequate level of teaching along with hooking us up to the college’s online net that didn’t work, but not to the RHS qualifications portal, that did, topped off with the tutor’s sudden disappearance.

The second year started even worse in that it didn’t even have a tutor, but after a month the clouds broke and I was optimistic – we had a new tutor, and I had a huge chunk of Module A notes prepared already.

Then two things happened. Firstly I got a call from college saying that after just one week Gloria, our new tutor, wasn’t coming back. My conscience was clear there, since I wasn’t one of those who’d moaned at her at length, but in any case it was disappointing as she’d seemed pretty clued up.

Later I heard a rumour (via college) that her departure was down to the class’ carping. This is entirely possible, but she was very engaged and mentioned a number of practical projects, which the class were enthusiastic about, but (based on experience) said the college would not support. Perhaps she found that to be true and together with a disenchanted class, quite sensibly baled out.

So we got another new tutor – just- apparently someone high up in the college called in a personal favour. And notwithstanding we had wasted a 5th lesson (Gloria’s last, and first, stand) and now a 6th with a new meet and greet, we seemed to be back on course. But there was a new development, which to my mind was a much bigger issue than a change of tutor.

We were with now doing Module D (Outdoor & Protected Plant Production).

At the beginning of the course we planned to do Module B (Taxonomy & Physiology) then Module A (Plant Propagation/Soils), and with those two compulsory elements out of the way coast into the last exam with our optional third – Module I (Ornamental Gardens) an area we were all familiar with.

Module D never , ever, came into it.

The thought behind the change was that it was short module and we had little time.

That may have sounded sensible but it overlooked a number of important factors.

To begin with the module was pretty dull. Commercial horticulture is not massively engaging to most gardeners. “It’s like farming,” said one of the class.

Not only was it of only peripheral interest to the class, it wasn’t something any of us were familiar with, so whilst Module I was a bit longer, it was one we all knew something about.

Added to that, it’s not so easy to get the right books. At least not inexpensively.

But most importantly, we had in no way been consulted about the change.

I voiced my dissent and although this was an utter “grab your ankles and grit your teeth”-type scenario, no-one supported my protests and I was left looking like an idiot.

(I did have the last laugh, albeit a hollow one, when I was the only person in the class who passed the module.)

I was irked about the swap, but nevertheless determined to make the best of it, and set about writing my own notes from the syllabus. This wasn’t that easy since you can’t just walk into a high street bookshop and pick up a book on commercial horticulture. Luckily I had a couple of books myself that I had acquired out of curiosity over the years, but had never actually thought I’d ever find useful. With a couple of bargain eBay purchases, some hefty textbooks arrived through the post and I at least had some guidance.

Meanwhile the class ploughed on. I say ploughed, I mean wandered with all the determination of an arthritic guinea pig with a sock pulled over its head.

The addition of insult to injury might have been swallowable if we’d been given expert coaching on the subject. I’m not sure we were. Certainly the 30 minutes we spent in early December compiling a fruit and veg shopping list by looking at the Sainsburys website, simply to illustrate that organic produce can be sold at a premium – a point that surely everyone knows – was a waste of quarter of a session.

The next week the snows came and there was no class, which meant that we lost another lesson. Not that the college actually rang and told anybody. Why should they you ask? Well they’d phoned two weeks before to tell us there was no class as the tutor was sick. Whether this was the same week she moved house I can’t quite recall.

Some of my classmates were re-sitting Module B. I leant one of them, Adam, a copy of my notes. He must have been impressed as a week later another classmate, Anna, sidled up and said, “Please may I have a copy of your notes – I hear they are wonderful.” I duly provided a set and a week later she came up to me and told me she now understood lots of things she hadn’t previously. It was a delight to hear this, but sad that she couldn’t say that same about a course we’d all paid for. 

By the time the exam came round in February we’d had only had proper lessons for 7 out of 15 scheduled classes. With that, and a horticultural subject most people were unfamiliar with, it’s no surprise virtually the whole class failed. I had a tough time myself for other reasons. Whilst I’d put together a reasonable set of notes, I was worried I might be seriously ill and my head was elsewhere. All things considered, I told myself all I needed to do was pass.

On the day, I knew I’d done OK on the short answer questions but my heart sank when I turned over the long answer paper. The first thought that spluttered through my mind was “I can’t answer any of these”. Then I rationalised things and did some quick sums on the edge of the exam paper. If I had got say 90% of the marks from the first section, that worked out at about 22%of the whole exam, which meant that I needed to get about 7 and a half marks from each of the three remaining 20 mark questions. So I took a deep breath. Straight away I realised that one of the questions was one of those special questions that the RHS sets just to annoy the Campaign for Plain English. You are required to read the question a number of times in order to work out that they are actually asking something quite simple. Once I’d unpicked the question, I reckoned that I could get most of the marks out of it. Then I moved on to another question where I knew enough to grab a few more points and by my calculations I only had to glean a small amount from a final question. It seems to me that people get quite hung up on specific details in RHS exam questions, which are the sort of thing that gets the final marks out of the thing, and forget that a reasonable proportion are available for outlining basic principles. To put it another way – there are marks to be had for stating the obvious. So on my last question that’s what I did.

This wasn’t the end of my adventures that day, as I wrote about at the time.

It was some months later, sat on a train, that I checked the RHS qualifications portal a week early before the result was expected. My squeal of delight at not just passing, but getting another 67%, was heard at the other end of the carriage. I know this because a friend who was at the far end of the carriage heard and seeing it was me, came to investigate. I was so pleased that I babbled him senseless for the whole journey.

All’s well that ends well you might say, but not for the rest of the class who pretty much sank without trace where Module D was concerned.

On a more positive note, both Adam and Anna passed their Module B re-sits and she was kind enough to make a point of telling me she wouldn’t have done so without my notes.

It can only get better, I thought.

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