Oldham College - Marks of distinction

Greg Rhodesin Training & Education

Greenkeeping standards in the North West look set for a seismic shift as a network of clubs from Greater Manchester to the Lancashire coast nurture tomorrow's talent.

Phil Lomas, left, with assessor Nick Atkinson

A major force behind that drive for excellence is Oldham College - a new kid on the block in terms of training provision but one making a major mark on the golfing, football and local authority landscape.

Behind this transformation in course care is Phil Lomas. He's an experienced hand at training, having spent nearly twenty years at Myerscough College before moving across to Oldham College as tutor and assessor for the Golf Greenkeeping and Horticulture course.

Establishing the department was one of Phil's first tasks on landing at Oldham four years ago. Today, the college works with some thirty courses and a number of local authorities across Greater Manchester in what is a pioneering plan to create a greenkeeping and horticultural community thriving on a new generation of highly qualified professionals.

The quality and style of delivery of Oldham's Level 2 and 3 provision is the secret behind such a strong following - and the College's growing reputation in the greenkeeping and horticulture sector.

Phil switched career trajectories in February 2017 with his move to Oldham College. "I wanted a fresh challenge," he reveals. After several meetings with Euey Madden, principal green space manager for Oldham Council's Environmental Services Department, business proposals including a training centre in Alexandra Park - Oldham's premier park - were put forward and agreed, and Phil was on his way as a training provider, born and bred locally.

"Euey had a vision of a land-based skills centre at the Park and we both developed the concept," Phil adds. "I started to deliver parks, gardens and green spaces for the staff at Oldham Council and to develop the greenkeeping aspect too. I sourced students and expanded my network of employer contacts, by word of mouth mainly, to help establish the service."

Craig O'Donnell, apprentice at High Legh Golf Club / Kit Gregory, apprentice at St Anne's Old Links

College strategy

As part of Phil's strategy from day one, he has sought to expand the range of opportunities for employers in Oldham and surrounding areas, as well as council and golf club employees.

He promotes Oldham as the first choice for training bodies, including BIGGA's Greenkeepers Training Committee, for tutoring and assessments and to utilise facilities at Alexandra Park, particularly an indoor centre to train apprentices in elements of horticulture that include tending flower beds, shrubbery and amenity turf.

"Previously, the council had put many apprentices through other providers but liked the idea of training being provided by the local college, especially as the tutor was locally born. So those now go through Oldham College."

"The council was key to us setting up the department," says Phil. "The greenkeepers were an added attraction. One that the department has developed to become an integral aspect of its plan for growth."

"Oldham Council wants to upskill its own staff, including improving park staff skills," Phil says, "and we run Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships in parks and gardens to help with this upskilling."

Oldham Council also has its own Traineeship programme - 12 workers are taken on each year, usually long-term unemployed, and they can take a Level 1 qualification as part of improving their personal and professional skills. "The course gives them a regimented working life for six months," Phil states.

"If a vacancy arises within the parks department, trainees have an opportunity for full-time work. The scheme is working very well to date; some twenty Level 1 trainees have progressed into full-time work with the council and about half of these have gone on to a Level 3 apprenticeship."

And, with the launch of the Northern Roots initiative, 160 acres of green space - the largest such underused area in the town - being developed right alongside Alexandra Park as an urban farm and eco park, the call for qualified staff will continue.

Phil is also seeking to train new and existing staff, give local people opportunities, use Alexandra Park to attract students from other authorities into Oldham for their training, and meet the needs of the local community by contributing to improving public health in ways such as providing vegetable planter courses for residents, which certainly chimes with national initiatives.

High-Legh Park Country Club / St Annes Old Links

Huge potential

"There's huge potential for apprentices if employers treat them well," Phil insists. "For clubs and councils, it's a sustainable way to grow their staff by training up a qualified greenkeeper or gardener for themselves."

"They may decide to move on, of course, but the chances are they will stay if the work environment is good. Our experience is that apprentices develop a sense of pride in what they do and a high percentage of them are delighted to continue at their present place of employment."

"When recruiting, the calibre of staff needed for the job is proving so difficult for clubs and councils, work-based apprenticeships present a viable route to attracting good quality young people," Phil adds.

But recruitment woes begin much earlier on the career path, Phil believes.

"Barriers to entering the sector present themselves at school level as the curriculum fails to promote greenkeeping and horticulture as career options," he states.

"One apprentice told me his school was trying to push him down other career avenues, but he developed a passion for greenkeeping and refused to be steered away from what he wanted to do."

Ingrained attitudes in education are prejudicing students' choices, he adds. "At secondary level, young people are channelled into horticulture if they are seen not to have science and technical leanings, but establishments seem to be unaware of just how far horticulture has developed and how much more technical and scientific it is now."

Phil Lomas, left, standing beside Craig O'Donnell, with his boss, Steven Stringer at High Legh Golf Club

Phil is on a wider mission to educate the educators. "Part of our task is to overturn the perception that greenkeepers, for example, are merely grasscutters. The reality, we know, is far different."

"This is such a huge area of opportunity and we have just scratched the surface," states Phil. "Most people have seen job advertisements and they have applied but not as a planned career - just something to fill in time until they find what they want to do."

One initiative the College has developed is working with a local secondary school, The Blue Coat School Oldham, to place students through the Practical Horticultural Skills Diploma.

"Pupils have a great chance to build their skills base in horticulture and move into a fulfilling role within the amenity sector, that they may not otherwise have considered as a career," he explains. "It's another route for the College to engage with the community."

Apprentices have the opportunity to move right up to the top now, aided by a continuous programme of training, he says. "After completing Level 2, there's opportunities to progress to Level 3, then to the new Level 5 apprenticeship in Golf Course Management, currently available in England only, allowing aspiring head greenkeepers and deputy course managers to compete for top posts."

"By being in tune with apprenticeships, which form a key part of world work skills, we can help us compete globally, and greenkeeping is seen very much as a career opportunity overseas," he says.

"UK greenkeepers have sought and found careers abroad - in Europe, the US and Australia - and have become well-established and respected for the expertise they bring to golf clubs and other sports sites and venues."

Alexandra Park

Team culture

No man is an island though, and Phil was quick to realise the department's delivery depended on expanding resources. Right-hand man Nick Atkinson came on board two years ago and together they have developed a unified approach to their work-based training model.

"I worked with Nick at Myerscough. He has an outstanding knowledge of horticulture and dovetails well with me, as he knew Oldham Council's management style and had previous experience of working at Alexandra Park, so could respond to the council's needs and standards."

Phil and Nick take apprentices through a 24-month work-based programme, with an End Point Assessment (EPA) at the end of it.

Proof of their effectiveness for greenkeeping is revealed in the results for 2021. The stats speak for themselves - 70% distinction grade, 30% merit grade and overall 100% pass rate. "I'm so proud for the College and for our students," he adds. "The assessments results prove the quality of delivery we have here."

Star players

Kit Gregory, who is working at St Anne's Old Links Golf Course in Lytham St Anne's, passed his EPA with the Level 2 distinction that marks him out as a future greenkeeping star.

Formerly a kids' football coach, he wanted to try something different and had volunteered at Royal Lytham, cutting greens. "Greenkeeping is a great career change for me because I'm still outdoors and getting stuck in," he says. "I've learned about everything to do with greenkeeping. I thought, as an apprentice, I might be put to one side but that's not the case. I've been thrown in and constantly pushed forward to become the best greenkeeper possible."

Greg Wellings, course manager at St Anne's Old Links, is impressed with Kit's performance. "Kit has a mature head on his shoulders and has embraced all challenges. He's taken a real interest in greenkeeping, and it shows."

Kim Seddon laying turf

"The club needs a multi-skilled, fully functioning workforce. Covering all areas on the apprenticeship is mutually beneficial. We're training up future professionals and it keeps things fresh for the apprentice," Greg explains.

He praises the College's "flexible, rounded teaching and assessment", adding: "Phil Lomas is very professional and we're really pleased with the results. You just know your apprentices are going to do well with him."

Kit's apprenticeship has opened up a new world of possibilities. He's planning to stay at the club short term but harbours ambitions to take higher-level qualifications and spend time working abroad.

Kit is one of three apprentices newly qualified through Oldham College as it develops a channel of proven success at one of Britain's top courses, known as an Open Championship qualifying venue over several years.

Colleagues Ben Quinn and Alfie Williams have joined Kit in Old Links' commitment to quality.

Huge relief

Craig O'Donnell, a Level 2 Golf Greenkeeping apprentice at High Legh Golf Club near Warrington, also passed his EPA with a distinction - another Oldham College 'graduate' who can apply the maintenance, care and management skills so vital to the sport.

[My result is] "a huge relief, because the worst bit is the waiting to find out how you've done," he says.

Under the EPA, "you chose a hole and talked about everything to do with it - literally an A to Z," he recalls. "At the start of the apprenticeship, I remember thinking how hard can it be, but had no idea greenkeeping was so detailed. You learn everything - soil types, grass types, maintenance and so much more," he adds.

Kim Seddon (left) and apprentices working at Alexandra Park

Teaching quality counted for Craig, a demobbed Army veteran in his mid-30s who had served in Afghanistan but had no qualifications.

"The College's apprenticeship worked for me because the course was taught well. Phil in particular takes the time to ensure learners fully understand everything that they are being shown."

High Legh head greenkeeper Steven Stringer was thrilled with the results of the programme. "I was absolutely delighted. Full credit must go to Craig for his work ethic and determination to pass the course, while gaining valuable knowledge and experience."

"In my opinion, Craig couldn't have achieved this without Phil Lomas, his course tutor, whose knowledge and passion for the job are second to none in the industry."

Steven's "total faith" in Oldham's level of delivery will translate into more High Legh staff passing through the college for their education requirements, he states.

Meanwhile, Craig is already weighing up his next move - an advanced apprenticeship Level 3 in Golf Greenkeeping - through Oldham College, which teed off on 26th November.

Eco leaning

Swelling the College's new generation of aspiring greenkeepers is Michael Russell, who reached the final of the 2021 Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year Awards in September.

Ecology manager at Preston Golf Club, Michael, 29, was one of six in the final group, chosen from both 2020 and 2021 nominees (Covid postponed last year's event).

Michael made a huge career jump by giving up his promising office-based career to train as a greenkeeper but "I don't regret it at all", he says.

Already holding a Sports Science degree, he warms to the education and learning side of work and credits his success on the Golf Greenkeeping apprenticeship to his "brilliant working relationship" with Phil, who comments:

"Michael has been an outstanding student throughout his apprenticeship with us and has completed a high standard of well-researched work, always displaying a high level of competence."

Limeside Park

Lockdown no limit

While lockdown witnessed a boom in homeowners tending their gardens, it also saw Oldham College horticulture apprentices carry on as normal.

Under the Council's traineeship, Level 3 apprentices Kim Seddon and Mark Fitton had to adjust to the then 'new normal', however.

Due to lockdown restrictions, apprentices hadn't been able to travel together which meant they'd been deployed carrying out maintenance work in different locations around the borough. "Their availability to continue working has been vital," the council comments.

May 2020 was reportedly the then sunniest calendar month on record, which sent grass, flowers and trees blooming lavishly and making plenty of work for the team, including Kim and Mark.

Kim remains based at Oldham's flagship 23-hectare Alexandra Park whilst Mark temporarily switched to Limeside Park, a popular local recreational spot.

Both were able to continue working in their roles - Kim as an environmental operative and Mark as a Grade 1 gardener - through social distancing.

Kim's main focus is Alexandra Park's herbaceous border, which Britain in Bloom judges had been due to inspect, until the prestigious annual event was postponed. However, Oldham has previously won a gold award, so expectations would have been high.

But in positive mood, she said at the time: "It's actually a relief to now have eighteen months to get the park looking its best, as opposed to rushing to get it all done in six."

Before apprenticing, Kim volunteered at the former Brownhill Countryside Centre with the Countryside Service after graduating from the University of Salford.

"It was an invaluable experience," Kim says. "When the job at Alexandra Park came up, I knew plenty of people in this line of work and could get interview tips from them. I didn't know all the tools, their uses or many Latin terms but I was determined and I told them I'd learn."

Each apprentice also receives specific projects to focus on and hone their skills. Mark assisted with the flagging and landscaping of the Northern Roots show garden ahead of intended submission to the 2021 Hampton Court Flower Festival.

Kim's main focus - redesigning two of Alexandra Park's flower beds - was initially on hold, as the nursery she sourced flowers from had to close, but since reopening, the project is progressing, but just a little later than planned.

Michael Russell / Mark Fitton

Oldham College assessed Kim and Mark's work throughout the year. Photos recorded the changing of the seasons, and the pairs' written-up actions helped them develop proof of a body of work they can be proud of now they have completed their Level 3 apprenticeships, Phil says.

Tutor and assessor Nick Atkinson is full of praise. "We're really proud of their commitment to carry on working and learning during the pandemic," he says.

"Kim has been completing her Level 3 work-based Diploma in Horticulture course for more than 10 months and is demonstrating a real passion and enthusiasm to gain more knowledge and understanding of the subject. Alexandra Park is an excellent horticultural facility that allows her to gather all the relevant project evidence to complete the qualification."

Nick adds: "The same is true for Mark, who, like Kim, had also previously completed his Level 1 and 2 horticultural qualifications with Oldham College whilst working for Oldham Council."

"Mark was really keen to progress on to his Level 3 course and has been involved with numerous grounds maintenance projects, including the impressive show garden."

Rosy future

Returning to golf, Phil is upbeat about the future. "The sport has a huge opportunity to progress," he predicts, but his interest extends still broader; he is active in developing further opportunities for the College, "to help ensure it grows at the right pace", he says. "We now deliver pesticide application and chainsaw short courses, whilst, under the department's plan for expansion, client targets include attracting more councils, golf clubs, football clubs and private landscapers."

"We have just started delivering Level 2 Sportsturf Operative Apprenticeship for those working for football clubs."

"Demand for training is constant," Phil confirms. "We always seek opportunities for the College to engage more deeply with sport and amenity providers, both locally and regionally. It's important to us that we've grown organically, supported by strong community links and the reputation we've built."

Apprentices working at Alexandra Park

More than 150 apprentices - from a catchment as far flung as Derby (Kedleston Park Golf Club) to Prestbury, Wilmslow and Manchester golf clubs and Lytham St Annes (Old Links) - have passed through the department since its inception and expansion means even more to come.

Links with four Greater Manchester authorities have led to the College providing a mix of training solutions.

With 6,500 learners and staff, Oldham College is an achieving educational hub, ranking second in Greater Manchester for apprenticeship achievement rates for 2020/21 (source: DfE and Education & Skills Funding Agency), TES FE award finalists for College of the Year 2020 and Outstanding use of technology in delivering remote teaching and learning (2021).

As a thriving entity within its delivery structure, the Horticulture and Greenkeeping department is sending a clear message that Oldham means business.

The Northern Roots initiative, for example, will provide major opportunities to deliver training in both apprenticeships and in short courses such as chainsaw, because of the tree population on such an extensive site.

Secrets of success

• Phil's longstanding reputation for delivering training

• Prides himself on quality

• Well connected. Some of the course managers and head greenkeepers Phil knows completed their apprenticeships under him as far back as twenty years ago

• Land-based trainer serving the local community

• Passionate training provider, determined to value every apprentice and ensure a quality experience for each one

• Understands both sides of the industry - as a tutor and an EPA assessor - so can tell apprentices all about what they can expect out in the field, as Phil and Nick are independent end-point assessors for City & Guilds and Lantra

A word about Oldham

"If you live or work in Oldham you are fortunate, the town's publicity claims. "No doorstep in this borough, and that includes our own campus, is more than two miles away from glorious open countryside."

"The Peak District National Park is around a quarter of the borough's footprint and there are picturesque villages such as Saddleworth, outdoor countryside centres, three nature reserves, play spaces, historic canals and waterways, woodlands, wildflower meadows and thirty-two parks."

The council won the 2019 gold award for North West Britain in Bloom (BIB) and Best Town Centre BIB award. "Our apprentices were heavily involved in preparing and maintaining the horticultural areas throughout the borough."

The 1969 moon landing inspired the town centre's iconic garden.