Sevenoaks School - Pitches are ‘old school’ no longer

Neville Johnsonin Schools & Colleges

A few years ago, the school report might have read: superb academic record and at the forefront of classroom innovation, yet a bit of an under achiever when it comes to sport and outdoor facilities. Neville Johnson finds out how a major revision exercise has transformed what a school is now offering on the playing field.

Founded in 1432 by William Sevenoke, a friend of Henry VI, Sevenoaks School is an independent co-educational day and boarding school with over 1,000 students. It is set, as are its sports fields, in a delightful 100-acre campus bang up against the world-renowned Knole Park with the Tudor splendour of Knole House in clear view.

The school is consistently near the top of the charts when it comes to exam achievements, and it is perhaps best known as a pioneer in this country for offering IB (International Baccalaureate), described as the gold standard in international university qualification, to 6th form students. It rightly has an unrivalled reputation as a centre of academic excellence at secondary school level and it's no surprise that there are pupils from over forty countries studying there.

The school has ten grass winter pitches and three cricket pitches, plus two all-weather pitches and a running track.

Taking the hit parade analogy a step further, the school's sporting prowess is a fast riser, shooting from 30th to 8th, according to the latest annual survey conducted by School Sports magazine into independent schools' results on the pitch. Action by the grounds team, and in particular a major pitch renovation scheme, are in no small way recognised as the underlying reason for this.

Left, Niall Watson and right, Dave Feaver

I talked first to Senior Groundsman Dave Feaver, who's been at Sevenoaks for eleven years, and seen a big change in pitch maintenance there and the way the school values them.

When I first came here, we had mowers to cut the grass, marking equipment, an old set of chain harrows and a hand roller, but not too much else. Methods were very much old school," he said.

Dave admits that, when he came to the school, he was at the bottom of the learning curve. Soon after he joined he did an on-line course and was one of the first to do this. Looking back, he realises he was pretty much a guinea pig. Course assessment, he remembers, was a bit of a problem because he was confronted with machinery he hadn't yet come across at work. Nevertheless, he gained much from the course, achieving an NVQ Level 3 in Groundsmanship to add to the Level 3 he had gained in Horticulture a few years earlier at Hadlow College.

There was a bit of antagonism between myself and the older generation here. Aeration was a particular issue and one that I wanted to see progressed.

Every Monday, after the pitches had been used at the weekend, the pitches were rolled. It seemed to me that it was the opposite of what we should be doing," Dave recalls.

When the then head groundsman - and, coincidentally, the head gardener - both retired, the school took the opportunity to bring care of all outdoor facilities - pitches and gardens - under a single set up. Until then, they had been two complete separate entities, with no meeting of minds, no real cooperation."

The whole idea of total quality presentation at once had a greater importance and began to be better managed."

Left, Simon Willems and right, Luke Stevens

Until a couple of years ago, there were just three groundsmen looking after all of the pitches. As Dave says, it meant they were always under pressure, just about managing - as the political statement goes - and never making real progress.

The set-up now comprises two teams under Simon Willems, Head of Grounds and Gardens at Sevenoaks: one maintaining all of the outdoor sports facilities; the other keeping the extensive garden surrounds in tip-top condition. Presentation excellence is their common purpose.

Simon's weekly planning meetings with both of us team leaders has brought really positive results in the way things are managed. We share equipment too, which never happened in the past and wasted so much time," said Dave.

The groundcare team has just been increased from three to four full-timers: Dave Feaver as the senior, with Niall Watson, previously at Crystal Palace, Luke Stevens, who has a professional greenkeeping background, and newcomer Tyson Wright, also with golf course experience. All of them skilled individuals but, more importantly, they are a group that gels. It's a team that's accelerating, that's clear to see.

The clay soil at Sevenoaks School is far from perfect for pitch upkeep. In Dukes Meadow and Park Grange, the two main pitch areas, conditions are often heavy and sand topdressing a regular need. Until a couple of years ago, when new drainage was installed, Dave likened it to Glastonbury at times during wet winter conditions. A celebrated annual event in early November, the town's firework display and bonfire run by the town's Lions Club, has been especially unhelpful some years - though a very worthy fund raiser - causing unwanted compaction.

Before the drainage was installed, one particular pitch was pretty much out of action for the rest of the term. This year, with the new drainage, the pitch was used just four days after being trampled by fourteen thousand firework revellers.

There has been a major improvement project over the past two years, sparked by the school realising that it needed better outdoor facilities. Three of the school's pitches sloped quite badly, one of them with a 4-metre difference corner to corner, and they were generally undulating surfaces, being on land immediately adjacent to Knole Park. "They weren't great pitches if we're honest," said Dave.

Simon Willems worked at Loughborough University for ten years, initially as a National Diploma year placement student, so he's more than familiar with the pressures of sport in an academic environment. He's a horticulturist by training, but also has a lot of experience looking after sports pitches on his CV. He outlined the improvement project at Sevenoaks School, which got under way two years ago, soon after he joined.

The project, or more particularly the way the school viewed the value of its pitches, had been prompted by a report on the facilities here back in 2012 by Sports Construction Consultancy of Horsham," said Simon.

The school appreciates that it has fallen behind a number of peer schools in its sports provision,' the report read. An agronomist conducted an assessment of all pitches using National Performance Quality Standards, and there was a topographical survey of all the sites there. Central to a suggested long-term plan of action was grading to improve the levels of the largest of these, Dukes Meadow.

An actual improvement plan was first drawn up by Simon's predecessor, Jacqueline McKenna. It was she who got the ball rolling, and her initial proposal was recognised by the school as a viable and well-costed project. Jacqueline, however, left the school to take up an appointment in Scotland before work actually got under way and, on his appointment in 2015, Simon adjusted the scheduling to make it a 3-phase operation rather than the start-to-finish single operation envisaged. His concern was to minimise disruption to school life on the playing fields by reducing pitch 'down time' as much as possible. Management would also be easier, and so this has proved.

Contractor Bourne Amenity was engaged to do the work. The school had already used them successfully for verti-draining assignments, so there was an established working relationship.

Phase one, which began towards the end of 2015, was the installation of drainage into three of the Dukes Meadow pitches, 2,3 and 7. Work began during the 2015 Easter holidays with the installation of primary drains at 5-metre intervals. Simon specified a sand rather gravel spec for this. Secondary sand slit drains were cut in a year later, and Bourne had used a Blec Sandmaster specifically for this.

Bourne Amenity on Dukes Meadow earthworks

During drainage installation, we dug up some of the old gravel drains, installed about fifteen years ago, and they were silted up so much they were totally ineffective. I knew that sand would avoid further problems of this kind," said Simon.

I reckon these old drains probably stopped working a few years after installation. The soil on the site has always had a very high silt content and pitches had never really been topdressed, so built into the improvement of the Dukes Meadow pitches was grand scale sand dressing."

Phase 2 of the scheme began late spring a year ago with the re-instating of Dukes Meadow pitch 6, which had had very poor levels. It was stripped off, graded and laser levelled, with drains cut in and laid at 5-metre intervals. Power harrowing mixed added sand into the soil to achieve a 50:50 sand:soil rootzone. It was seeded in mid-September last year, which was a delay of three weeks or so because of unseasonably dry conditions. Barenbrug Bar 7 and Bar Stadia was the mix used. Simon says his grounds team was cutting the pitch less than three weeks after seeding.

In January this year, barely twelve months after the groundwork began, the school was playing football on it and, next term, it will be the first team pitch for football and rugby. Retaining hedging, yet to be planted, plus seating and dug-outs will complete this aspect of the project.

Phase 3, which is the last of the large-scale improvement work, has started already. This is the levelling and installing of drainage and irrigation to Dukes Meadow pitches 4 and 5, which sit adjacent to pitch 6. Once finished, it will create a vast training area with a high quality surface.

The pop-up irrigation is being installed by specialists Top Turf of Arundel as an ongoing part of the project as the Dukes Meadow pitches are improved one by one. Dukes Meadow pitch 1, in the centre of the all-weather running track, already had pop-ups before Simon came on to the scene, but pipework has now been extended to include the rest of the pitches on the site as work has progressed. The grounds team has been using Javelins where pop-ups have yet to be installed.

The irrigation system's software has a growth irrigation node, which ensures optimum watering for germination, and it worked perfectly for the new pitch 6," said Simon.

Re-draining and re-levelling of Dukes Meadow pitch 1 has always been an aim of Simon's and this is a later phase yet to get underway. It will mean an immaculate surface for football, rugby and athletics field sport from term to term. Simon refers to pitch 1 and the running track area as the jewel in the school's sporting crown.

This has never been a quick fix project, rather a serious long-term investment that has to work and last. Simon takes what he does very seriously. The entire pitch improvement scheme will be completed by 2020, he believes.

Sport has always been part of school life at Sevenoaks, but moving on from pitches simply being playable to excellent has meant it has grown in importance. Presentation and quality of the pitches is having a big effect on students in the enjoyment of games and their will to win.

Simon Willems (back left) with the grounds team

Pitches these days are regularly used by 'outsiders' during school holidays and long weekend breaks. It's a serious income source. Saracens, Crystal Palace and Charlton Athletic have each used them for junior training sessions and, in the summer holiday period, foreign students studying English as a foreign language use them for sport and leisure.

Dave Feaver is a big fan of such usage. "It puts the school in the spotlight and offers a great opportunity to show off the quality of our outdoor facilities," he said.

I love people coming here and enjoying our grounds. It is, after all, a stunning location. I want people to enjoy it as much as I do."

Dave and the groundcare team get plenty of support from the school's PE department and, of course, from Simon, who speaks as positively about routine work as he does the major refurbishment.

As far as maintenance is concerned, as the team expands, we're buying in better equipment and taking more and more jobs in-house," he said. "Later this year, we're getting in our own Verti-drain, which will give us more direct control of aeration."

What we're trying to do is move into a cycle of repeatable work. Mini renovation in spring, another in summer and another in the autumn half-term break. We've moved far away from the make do and mend of the past."

You don't need a lot of people or a lot of kit. You need the right people and the right kit and, above all, a plan. We have a great team now. We know exactly where we're going and how we're going to get there!