Holmewood House School - 100 percent pupil participation in sport

Neville Johnsonin Schools & Colleges

This non-selective boarding and day school for boys and girls aged 3-13, set in thirty-two delightfully green acres on the southern fringe of Kent's famous spa town Tunbridge Wells, aims for 100 percent pupil participation in sport, regardless of ability. Neville Johnson went there to meet David Tankard, the man in charge of grounds maintenance.

Summer at Holmewood House

When Queen Victoria came to the throne, Holmewood House was the home of her physician and gynaecologist Sir Charles Locock. From 1850 until the 1930s, it was the country home of the wealthy Barrow family, but immediately after the war its life as a school began with just eight pupils, all boys. In 1989, it began to introduce girl pupils and went fully co-educational in the 1990s. Now, there are over 450 boys and girls there.

Holmewood House School has outstanding facilities, including a 360-seat theatre, a purpose-built music school, a sports hall, a TigerTurf all-weather hockey pitch with 300-metre athletics track, squash courts and a 25-metre, six lane indoor swimming pool. Post-war rationing affected lunches and footballs with hand-sewn seams are hard to imagine as I'm welcomed by Head Groundsman David Tankard, signed in at the school reception and ID'd with a lanyard. Everything is relaxed and homely, yet utterly professional.

We walk to David's office with cuppa brewed in the teaching staffroom, then chat about his life as a groundsman and pitch care at Holmewood House.

He says he actually worked at the school, as a gap student, back in 1995-6 whilst taking a year out between A levels and going to Brunel University. His aim then was to go into teaching, but course changes altered that and, before making a fresh career choice, he spent a summer working with the greens team at Crowborough Beacon Golf Club, thanks to family connections there. In his words, he fell in love with the work, and his working life began to take shape.

Head Groundsman David Tankard

After a couple of years working on grounds run by Crowborough Town Council, he was head hunted for a position at the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells where he stayed for thirteen years, nine of them in charge at this Kent CCC outground. During his time at the Nevill, he studied groundsmanship by day-release at Hadlow College and achieved NVQ Level 2.

It was 2015 - nearly twenty years after his thoughts of going into teaching - that did see him move into the world of education. At the very start of that cricket season, Tonbridge School had hired the Nevill for a couple of matches. It was a pivotal event for David.

"One of the Holmewood House teachers, whose son was playing for Tonbridge, told me that the school needed someone to take over as head groundsman," he said.

"I applied for the post and, within a couple of weeks, I took up the appointment."

"After many years in the capable hands of a head groundsman who had retired, a contractor had been given the job of looking after the school's pitches. It would be true to say that the standards had dropped as a consequence and, when I started here, it was clear that a lot of work was needed to improve things."

David has now been at Holmewood House for what he describes as four very happy years.

The school's artificial surface hockey pitches and running track

He is an unashamed sports fan. He loves football, and admits to being torn between Brighton and Hove Albion and Manchester United and, when younger, played cricket and hockey until knee surgery ruled them out. These days, he is golfer when time allows. It is quickly apparent that having a part to play in the sporting life at Holmewood House clearly fires him.

As we talk about the impending cricket season, and our shared love of the game, he utters an unmatchable name-drop. When he was a border at Radley, he was in the same year group as former England Captain Andrew Strauss, he tells me.

Working with David at the school are his assistant Ian Hindley and Fiona Gillman, who looks after all of the gardens and everything ornamental. David works under its Estates Manager Anita Randall.

David and Fiona start work at 7.30am and the first essential job every day, rain or shine, is to clear the whole site of any debris using back-pack blowers.

On most days, Ian starts at 8.00am, but has the job at the end of the school day of acting as 'lollipop man' at the crossings on the school's roadway. It is part of the grounds team remit and they will each don the high viz jackets if needs be to man the crossing between 3.20-3.50pm and 4.15-5.00pm each day.

Ian Hindley

Daily at 8.30am, they meet together to discuss the jobs for the day and any issues that require their attention.

David will only use outside contractors for work where specialist equipment or additional labour is required. All seasonal spraying work, for instance, is carried out for him by Lamberhurst-based firm Weed Management, and this is always conducted during school holidays to ensure absolute safety.

As far as the artificial surface hockey pitch is concerned, David and Ian handle the routine brush upkeep, but specialist contractor Spadeoak comes in twice a year to do a deep-clean renovation.

"It takes a day and they do an excellent job," said David.

One major project is in the offing; that of a complete renovation of the main rugby and football pitch. David has engaged Bourne Sport to do this for him and the contractor is due on site for the main work as soon as the summer holiday starts. Some of the verti-draining will have been conducted during the Easter break and, after further such aeration in early July, the overhaul will include the spreading of a hundred tonnes of sand, ahead of topdressing and reseeding.

"It has been three or four years since it has received major attention," said David.

"This is our principal winter games pitch and the only section of our turfed grounds with drainage. It will be vastly improved by this work and, after eight or nine weeks specialist attention, it will be ready for the new season at the beginning of the autumn term."

At Holmewood House, for boys it's football first until the late October half-term, then rugby until three weeks into the spring term. After that, it's hockey, and then cricket in the summer term. For girls, it's hockey during the autumn term, then netball in spring, and now a mixture of rounders and cricket in summer. David describes the rapidity of changeover as challenging.

Under 13s rugby and Quick Cricket

In David's care over the autumn and spring terms are two under-13 size and seven or eight under-10 size football pitches. For rugby, there is one under-13 pitch, two under-12, two under-10, two under-9, and three under-8. For hockey, there are a full-size and two half-size pitches on the all-weather area, and one half-size turf pitch. In the summer term, much of the grassed area accommodates cricket outfields for which there are two main squares and a smaller two-wicket square, plus eight prepared quick cricket strips around the site and six rounders pitches.

"All of our pitches are used pretty well all of the time," said David.

Underlying soil conditions are very heavy clay and there are big drainage issues. Only the main rugby pitch, about to be renovated by Bourne, has any drainage. The rest rely on whatever spiking and slitting David and Ian are themselves able to do.

When it's belting down with rain, David's heart sinks because heavy pitches and surface water will surely follow.

The school takes huge pride in all its sport. There has, however, been a noticeable push for rugby since the new headmaster Scott Carnochan took up the reins in September 2017. The fact he was once at junior international for Scotland may have something to do with this.

Total pupil participation in sport is unashamedly the school's philosophy. Each child, regardless of ability, is encouraged to enjoy games sessions. All of them are encouraged to experience matches and controlled competition. Skilled and experienced sports staff help develop knowledge and skills and instill a love and passion for a variety of sports from nursery age to year-8.

"Sport is a very important part of school life at Holmewood House for every one of the pupils, not just for those that excel," said David.

"Wear and tear on the pitches is massive all year round. There is no respite, but we love our role."

"Working in an environment with very young children does sometimes pose difficulties, but their welfare and safety always comes first and we are mindful of this every single day. I never use granular fertiliser, for instance, anywhere other than on the main cricket square."

Synthetic Turf Pitch

Depending on the time of year and outdoor conditions, break times are often spent on all grassed areas, and liaison between teaching staff and the grounds team is crucial. David and his team have to know where the children are going to be at all times, so they can regulate the use of machinery. To this end, there is a weekly operations meeting involving heads of department and key support staff.

As we speak, at the end of March, it is very much crossover time in terms of school sport and pitches. David has less than five weeks to convert winter games surfaces into cricket outfields. The main first-eleven cricket ground still has two junior football pitches on its outfield, but Ian Hindley is busy cutting ready for summer term action.

David is in the process of gradually reducing grass height everywhere from its 35-50mm winter levels to 12-15mm ready for summer sports.

"Height and density have not been what it often is at this time of year because it has been unusually dry," he said.

"For me, twice weekly outfield cutting is the best of jobs. Apart from the satisfaction of producing a neat and lush playing area, it gives me time to think and plan without distraction."

"We'll soon be spiking and slitting in two directions ready for overseeding, and these are 'must do' tasks ahead of summer term."

David uses a tow-behind seeder and will be overseeding with Barenbrug Multisport mix, a new choice this year to infill some of the bare outfield areas; elsewhere he plans to use a new variety with creeping ryegrass he was keen to try on other worn areas.

He had also set about pre-season rolling of the main cricket square. It's a sign that summer is just around the corner.

David lists Avoncrop, Vitax and Supaturf as regular suppliers of materials. For sports equipment, like posts, nets and flags, he uses Kent firm Bob Woolmer Sales, which is an interesting past connection with the school because the late Kent and England all-rounder and Pakistan coach once coached cricket here.

David says they are about to get involved in a project in association with Brogdale, the home of the National Fruit Collection at Faversham in Kent. The plan is to give over an area of the grounds to regionalised fruit trees as an educational aid to pupils, encouraging them to learn about nurturing and harvesting.

The grounds team's environmental remit already includes the upkeep of a wild meadow area where beehives produce the school's own honey. A pond renovation project is also looming for them, so there's never going to be a dull moment for David and his small team.

What's in the shed?

Ransomes 2130 Highway ride-on cylinder
Cub Cadet ride-on rotary mowers with trailer, collector and deflector attachments x 2
Lloyds Palladin pedestrian cylinder
Atco Club pedestrian cylinder
Lawnflite Pro pedestrian rotary
Hayter Harrier pedestrian rotaries x 2
Toro pedestrian rotary

Kioti 30, plus bucket
Kioti 35

Sisis Rolaspike
Sisis Roller
Sisis Tri-Play frame
Sisis Single-Play frame
Sisis Slitter
Sisis Brush
Sisis Spring Tines
Sisis Grader
Ransomes Trail Gangs
Twose Roller
Twose trailers - large and small

Auto Roller 4ft
Bomag 2ft

Stihl BR600 x 2
Stihl BR500
Stihl FS460
Stihl FS45

Stihl HS82RC
Stihl HS85

Stihl MS340
Stihl MS25

Stihl KM90R strimmer, hedgecutter, polesaw, extension
Stihl K111R

Sisis RotaRake
Lawn scarifier
Garden vacuum
Billy Goat MV
Astro brush
Supaturf TXE 606 Pros x 2
Allen Spreadmaster
Cooper-Pegler sprayers x 2