A photo of John in his cap and gown at graduation.

A 74-year-old retired teacher who failed his 11-plus has graduated from Swansea University with merit and is encouraging others never to stop learning.

Despite a rocky start to his own schooling, John Richard Wilsher had a long and happy profession as a primary school teacher, forming a lifelong passion for education.

"Whilst teaching, I studied for an Open University bachelor's degree, a Post Graduate Diploma in Education and two other diplomas. Studying whilst working seems to be a part of my DNA," said John, originally from Barnstaple.

Having always been fascinated by geography, when John was looking for a new way to keep his mind active, Swansea University's MSc in Environmental Dynamics and Climate Change was an easy decision.

"I trained as a geography teacher, and science was also a real interest of mine. Climate change is, or ought to be, the concern of everyone as it is so topical," said John.

"Mind you, my last science lesson was in 1964, my last geography lecture in 1969 and my last exam in 1987 - surprisingly, some things have changed since then!"

John started his studies in September 2021 and was able to do so in person, thanks to the Welsh Government's 60+ master's bursary.

This £4,000 non-repayable grant helps cover study and living costs for those over 60 who cannot access the same financial support as younger students.

"Without the bursary, I could not have afforded the course on my small, fixed pension," expressed John.

"The course was all I wanted it to be, very challenging but absorbing. I learnt so much about a subject which, to some, is still controversial, and I'm grateful I had the chance to do it." 

Although John was a keen student, returning to higher education was not easy, but he was extremely impressed with the support available to those who needed it.

"As an older man, facing in-person exams for the first time in 35 years, and with a memory that I knew was not as sharp as it had been in my youth, I was concerned," John confessed.

"However, once I shared this with my tutor, the support agencies sprang into action and measures were provided to alleviate my concern."

With all but two of his fellow students at least half a century younger, John expected their experiences would differ, but one struggle they all had to face was Covid.

Seeing how the pandemic limited employment opportunities, John was determined to do all he could to help his fellow students, using course tutorials as a way to share his professional experiences as an employer.

"At Swansea University, I was privileged to have been in the company of such talented young people; it definitely had a rejuvenating effect, refreshing the brain.

"It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to return the favour by sharing some of the lessons I've learnt over the years."

This isn't anything new for John, as he has always strived to support the younger generations, no matter his position.

"When I was a British Army officer with the Devon Army Cadet Force in the 1980s, in my spare time, I worked with 13-to-18-year-olds to ensure they achieved their potential and made the most of the experience," explained John.

"I also spent 20 years as a local councillor in North Devon, and by far, my proudest achievement was the three years I worked with the youth of North Devon to fund and build a £400,000 skate park for their use."

John now lives in Swansea and volunteers as a tour guide for Oystermouth Castle.

He is already looking for additional volunteering opportunities that complement his skills and interests, which now, thanks to his master's, includes ecology.

Whatever his next steps, John hopes his story proves that whilst setbacks can happen, you should never give up on your goals.

"I've had my share of hurdles to overcome, such as opportunities lost because of my 11-plus failure, or most recently, Covid, but they need not be life-determining," John says.

"Life is not a rehearsal; positive opportunities should be grasped when available. Time goes so quickly, especially for the over 60s, so if you are interested in something, focus on the end goal, not your past hardships. Go for it now!"

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