Kevin Richardson was a small fish in a very large pond. He was one of more than 2,000 pupils in the biggest secondary school in the Avon region, lost in classes crammed full with well over 30 pupils. “I never felt I knew how to study. I went to classes but nothing went in,” he says. “I just didn’t engage with learning.”
He’d always struggled massively with reading and writing, was not pushed to do well by his parents or put up a set to progress in his best subject, maths. He ended up taking seven GCSEs but passing none. He left school a demoralised young man.
Kevin felt his social demographic meant he’d always imagined himself in work at 16. No family members had ever been to college or university. He enrolled in a work experience scheme, got an office job, and then a lucky breakthrough a friend who was a head-chef landed him a Saturday washing-up role in a restaurant.
It was then he fell in love with the buzz and pace of kitchen life, working under pressure, thinking on his feet. He’d always been a kinaesthetic learner, learning by doing, and at last, had found something he enjoyed. Fifteen years later he was head chef in The Social restaurant in Bristol, where he remained for five years.
It was hard, challenging but satisfying work until he started asking did he really want to be still on his feet all day in the stressful environment of a hot, busy kitchen, barking orders, in 10 years’ time.
He realised getting maths and English GCSEs was a must for any career change – no reputable training course would accept students without them and yet he’d really struggled with English at school.
For him, at first, it was a personal challenge to overcome. “I didn’t feel any pressure as I had no main motive and I thought I might even go back to hospitality,” says Kevin, after giving up his job shortly after starting GCSEs. “I really had to apply myself but I wasn’t seeking any academic advancement at that stage.”
It greatly helped to have his wife’s wholehearted support – Kevin had supported her a few years before when she had returned to university to train to teach students with learning disabilities.
His first few days in college were initially nerve-wracking, then surprising. He had to do a basic test to prove he had some understanding of the subjects, and then he found it weird walking into class not knowing the other people or the level it would be pitched at.
But he also found the college amazingly supportive and so different from school. “I was assessed before I started my GCSEs and for the first time ever I was freely able to talk about my difficulties at length at school without being challenged. Then my interviewer said she thought I was dyslexic – which explained a lot. It had just not been picked up in my overcrowded, mainstream school.”
College was like a new beginning. His English class was so small – just 10 students.
His English tutor, Neil, was a revelation for Kevin and his peers. “He was just brilliant with the amount of time he spent with you – gently taking you through the course. So different to the often quite frightening process at school where I would be asked to read out in class from a book I knew nothing about in front of 30-40 people.
“Neil managed the class so that you felt like you were always getting some attention. At the end of class, he’d ask if any of us wanted to discuss anything, such as the marking handed back that lesson.”
Another advantage of studying at the City of Bristol College was the flexibility of learning in day- or night-time classes. Kevin chose to do his English and maths courses on just Tuesday mornings and evenings respectively, on two different campuses, with a few hours off in-between. “It made life much easier doing it all in one day when organising my part-time work and other commitments,” he says. Retaking GCSEs also cost nothing.
“I felt my maths was fairly strong but I was nervous about my poor spelling and learning English grammar – I’d been lucky enough in my previous profession not have to write much! But my spelling improved over the year when I used some of the rules given to us by Neil.
“We did exercises with grammar, commas and apostrophes and used games to make it more fun and accessible. It’s all about passing your GCSE, giving you a good understanding of grammar without making you feel you have to know it perfectly – it’s more about learning the difference between a noun, verb or metaphor. That approach shattered my fear of it being a big, scary subject.
So what was so special about Neil’s approach to teaching? “He was just so relaxed most of the time … he was always jokey in class, super approachable, very caring, and made you believe you could definitely achieve your goals. He was very encouraging.”
Kevin’s maths tutor, Jamie, was similarly supportive and always accessible if a student needed something explained or help with a problem.
“For anyone who’s left school without proper qualifications like me, I’d definitely recommend going to college . . . it’s changed so much for me this year. It’s about just accepting where you are and going forward – and it’s always easier to start studying when you are in a job.”
“As you get older you often feel all doors closing around you but they aren’t! Once you’ve taken that first step you can do whatever you want … making just one alteration can transform everything.”
When Kevin started on his GCSEs, the natural “What’s next?” question from his tutors got him seriously thinking about becoming a paramedic, an idea he’d considered in the past.
He was inspired enough to attend an open day at the University of the West of England, where he listened to a talk on paramedic science. He realised he had many transferable skills from his chef’s career – paramedics often had to work fast in stressful situations where they had to think on their feet.
Provided he passes his GCSEs (results out this month) Kevin can take a one-year higher access course which starts at his college this September. As a mature student aged over 25 he can apply for an Advanced Learner Loan of just under £4,000 for the access course from the Student Loan Company. Then if he completes the course and then goes on to gain (in his case) a paramedic science degree, the access course fee is waived. Nothing is paid upfront.
“The access course involves 15 hours per week in college and then 15-20 hours of self-directed study – basically a full-time course which would allow me to work part-time in a two-shifts-a week job at a brain rehabilitation centre that I’m due to start in a few weeks.”
“If I need to retake my GCSEs I can do that while on the access course. Then, if I get through the access course and get a place on a three-year full-time university course, I’ll do ad hoc supply work to earn extra income.”
Kevin cannot praise the City of Bristol College enough for getting him to where he is. “All the teachers I have met at college have encouraged me – and it’s not just been my tutors. Unlike school, they are always genuinely making you feel welcome whatever course you are doing – they make you feel wanted.”
Interview by Richard Doughty