THE BLOG
09/06/2015 10:52 BST | Updated 09/06/2016 06:59 BST

Why I'm Encouraging Students to Take the Path Less Travelled... and Consider a Vocational Qualification

I wasn't very happy at any of the schools I went to as a child. I couldn't blame it on a deprived childhood - far from it. I grew up in safe, middle-class suburb of Dublin in a lovely house. Education was hugely important to my parents because that was how they'd bettered themselves and gone on to buy their own home having originally come from the inner city. Unfortunately I was always a disappointment to them on that score, as I was a bit of a problem child.

My parents sent me to two or three primary schools, hoping desperately to find one where I'd thrive. They couldn't understand why I was having trouble, and even got me to see a child psychologist. They tried everything, but traditional schooling just didn't seem to be 'my thing'.

I didn't really enjoy my time at secondary school much either. I found it hard to make friends and was a bit of an outsider. I was completely uninterested in most subjects, except art, English and religious studies. The one sport I excelled at was swimming - the school had its own pool and I would go for a dip after lessons most days.

The other thing I enjoyed, which I did outside school on a Saturday morning, was pottery because it was creative and had none of the negative connotations I associated with school.

It was through the cub scouts rather than school that I first got interested in gardening. I had an uncle who was a head honcho in the Irish scouting movement, and I loved it because you'd go camping and earn badges for practical, Blue Peter-ish things. I remember we had to grow something from seed to get one particular badge. My parents weren't green- fingered so a neighbour told me what to do, and watching the packet of cress seed germinate utterly fascinated me.

After leaving school, with poor results, I knew I wanted to make gardens - gardens that were different and creative. I went straight to a job in Mackey's Seeds of Mary Street in Dublin's city centre and knew I had found my vocation. I spent three years gaining practical horticultural experience, weighing out seeds, sorting bulbs and selling fertiliser.

After a while, and after lots of hard graft, I was offered a place at the College of Amenity Horticulture, located in the grounds of Dublin's National Botanic Gardens. It ran a three year apprenticeship course, and valued interest in the subject as much as previous educational achievement - which was good for me as I had passion.

Dublin's National Botanic Gardens are among the world's oldest, and are renowned for their rich and varied collection of plants, their pioneering glasshouses and the knowledge of those who worked there - the gardeners. I was in my element.

It was in this environment that I learnt my trade from wise and experienced craft gardeners, as well as the principles of horticulture from the lecturers. The first and third years were spent in the Botanic gardens, the perfect outdoor classroom to learn how to identify plants and look after then. The middle year was spent gaining practical experience working in the city parks of Dublin. But it wasn't all hard work. There was also plenty of fun and camaraderie with fellow students.

Looking back, what I remember vividly is the dedication and enthusiasm of those who taught me. The practical skills I learnt from this vocational training have stayed with me for life and provided a solid foundation for my career as a garden designer. I have extremely happy, fond memories of this time - much better memories than those in the classroom not really interested in what I was being taught.

My experience with education means that I will forever now champion vocational education as an alternative to the traditional academic route. I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me and this dented my confidence. In reality, the type of learning I experienced in the classroom just didn't play to my strengths.

As soon as I started gardening, I gave it the time, dedication, energy and commitment that I didn't give to my traditional subjects at school and it all made sense. I began to enjoy what I was doing, and started to succeed. Now, I'm lucky enough to have made a living out of my passion. But there are hundreds of people I speak to everyday pursuing courses and careers that don't fulfil them. They felt pressured into doing what was right on paper, but what wasn't necessarily right for them.

With this in mind, I was honoured to be asked to host the Edge Foundation's VQ Awards ceremony, and present some of the best vocational talent in the country with awards recognising their achievements.

It's so important to tell these stories and raise the profile of high-quality vocational courses so young people don't have to go through the frustration and disappointment that I did growing up. It's all about choice, options and doing what's right for you.

When my daughter Eppie grows up I will continue to instil in her the work ethic my parents drilled into me. However, I will show her that sometimes it's the road less travelled that makes all the difference.

For further information, please visit www.vqday.org.uk