Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Diarmuid Gavin, gardening presenter and designer

'Nobody failed maths – I did!'
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The Independent Online

Diarmuid Gavin, 44, has presented 'Home Front' and appeared on 'Strictly Come Dancing'. The first 'Diarmuid Gavin's Garden Designs' magazine is out now, and he has just launched the Morrisons "Let's Grow" voucher scheme for schools (

"Passed/Failed"? Just call it "Failed" in my case! Learning didn't suit me, although I had no actual impediment. When I was about eight, I was sent to a child psychologist, who came to the conclusion that I'd already reached: there was nothing wrong with me.

I can't remember the name of my first school on the Northside of Dublin. I remember going into the class when I was three or four, and it was mayhem: so many kids!

After a year or so, we moved to the Southside. I must have been one of the youngest pupils at the Loretto College, which had big granite buildings and felt like a castle. This was where Mother Teresa of Calcutta became a nun. I remember having great fun in a noisy playground. The nuns had a farm and a couple of fields with cows grazing.

I loved every second of it, but then tragedy struck. When I was six, my younger brother was knocked down and killed on the way to school. I was off for a couple of weeks, and when I came back we were cosseted and cared for; one of the nuns had written a little book about his life.

For my parents, there were too many memories attached, and I was moved to Ballyroan Boys National School, which was also very near but in another direction. This was in a Modernist brick building, much busier and more anonymous. I felt like a fish out of water.

My parents were quite concerned about me and moved me to St Joseph's, a little further away, where there were some great teachers. Mr O'Halloran brought his guitar in and taught you to sing Irish rebel songs. As a headmaster, Mr Garvey was very humane and friendly. If you happened to meet him outside, he was always interested in you as a person.

At maybe 13 years old, I went to Templeogue College, which was then regarded as progressive, but if you weren't into rugby, which I didn't play, you weren't going to get the attention paid to you by the teachers. I always did well in English and would usually come in first in religious studies as I found it easy to write a pleasing essay for the priest. Art I loved. We had a very inspirational teacher, who gave me a key to the art room. I wouldn't have done very well at the Intermediate Certificate [O-level equivalent] exams. In fact, I would have done terribly.

Everyone worries when you're the only one in the family who shows no academic leaning. One evening, my dad came into my bedroom and threw at me papers containing every result I had ever had at school. I had been a let-down to him. My Leaving Certificate [A-level] results were just terrible. Nobody failed maths – and I failed!

The career-guidance teacher had asked me to bring in my Lego buildings (I'm now one of the judges for the Riba Stirling Prize) and suggested engineering as a possible career for me, but I thought I wanted to be a landscape gardener. When I was 12, I had marched my little sisters into the park and under the bushes, and we had landscaped the side of the hill with my father's gardening tools.

You didn't need any qualifications to go to the College of Amenity Horticulture in Dublin. I loved every moment of my three years there, and came out of my shell. A couple of the teachers were absolutely brilliant, but I was sorely disappointed with the formal education because I wanted to learn about landscape design, which wasn't on the agenda.

While I was there, we went on strike because our qualification was meant to be a Higher Diploma, and they changed it so that we were getting just a Certificate. I didn't care about the piece of paper, but I did enjoy drinking Guinness on the picket outside the department of horticulture!