Its pledge to boost pupil participation underpins Head Groundsman Ian Barber's mission to deliver prime provision at Cheadle Hulme School, reports Greg Rhodes.
Aspirational, people-focused, dynamic." The words spring from the head teacher's introduction to Cheadle Hulme School, near Stockport and they apply as much to its team of grounds professionals as they do to the staff, parents and pupils.
Like many in the independent sector, the school presents a complex, intriguing and often demanding task for the head groundsman and those working with him. As such, a sense of timing and diplomacy are key skills to bring to the table when you come on board. Ian Barber is still new to the job here and is relishing the challenges he faces in delivering the quality of provision that the school, sports department heads and pupils expect.
Another disciple of turfcare doyen Keith Boyce, Ian worked at Headingley through the 1990s to 2001, when he moved to head up Leeds United FC training ground's turfcare. He crossed `the great divide` (the Pennines backbone separating Yorkshire and Lancashire) in 2005 after a five-year stint in Leeds. "It was time for a new challenge," says the 43 year-old, who took charge of Cheadle (Kingsway) Sports Club, in nearby Cheadle, South Manchester.
He spent a decade striving to balance the switch from the lacrosse season (the sport commands a strong base in the region) and cricket on a constrained playing area where turf damage inflicted by the fast, rugged sport had to be turned around in a matter of a month to accommodate the outfield for the summer game.
"Money was tight there and it grew to the stage where nothing was being ploughed into the upkeep of the pitches," Ian recalls. By 2015, it was time to move on up - Ian coming into post as head groundsman in April, at a time when the school was experiencing healthy pupil numbers, with 1,400 boys and girls in its Infant, Junior, Senior School and Sixth Form.
Back in the day, Cheadle Hulme School formed one of a cluster of schools in and around Manchester, providing lacrosse in the spring term. The sport suffered a decline in numbers, forcing CHS to cease playing and instead expand its football offering. With his experience at Cheadle (Kingsway) still very much in mind, Ian comments: "We don't play lacrosse here anymore, thank God. The central face-off areas and goalmouths became mudbaths."
It was no coincidence that Ian spent his formative days working in and around cricket. "I had hopes of becoming a professional cricketer. I batted for Yorkshire schoolboys and wanted to be taken on by the county cricket club as one of the four young recruits they took on each year."
He just failed in that quest but the club's Ralph Middlebrook offered him the chance to work at the ground through the summer of 1990. "I worked hard but the club were unable to offer me full-time work so I went back to Royds Comprehensive School, Oulton, near Leeds as a sixth-former."
Then the unthinkable happened. "Just after Christmas 1990, Keith Boyce, (Yorkshire CCC head groundsman), phoned to say a full-time job was going at Headingley."
Still only 17, Ian didn't have to think too long about the offer. "I loved my time working under Keith. He made it clear that the work was hard but our efforts could have a major impact on the game. I spent many hours riding on the back of the roller with Keith at the wheel. I was a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as I possibly could from an acknowledged master of his craft."
Ian, like contemporary Sheldon Bonner, felt the strong bond of kinship with Keith. "He treated me like a son. I was interested to read of Sheldon's views about Keith in the last issue of Pitchcare, as we both feel that we might have landed in trouble and been jobless if Keith hadn't kept us on the straight and narrow."
"His wife Margaret was lovely too. She did so much for us, while still finding the time to act as the rugby league club's laundry lady during the winter season, washing the kit."
"She had a massive input on everything. Keith would drag her out of bed at 5am about some issue at the ground - but her bacon sarnies at 6am set us up for the day. When Keith lost Margaret in 1995, he was devastated and lost the will to stay at Headingley."
"A high point of my career was the England v West Indies test in June 1995. Margaret had just died and Old Trafford head groundsman Pete Marron offered to help prepare the pitch, but Keith insisted on doing the job and that made us work all the harder for him."
The Headingley life was everything for Ian, he reveals. "They were great days - not so great when it rained of course. We stayed on site all the time, cutting the outfield in the evening, rising early to prepare for the cricket, rolling between innings and inbetween times watching the action."
Much of that experience Ian has taken forward into his way of doing things, he adds. "Keith was a fantastic boss and I'd like to think I apply his approach in my work - the little things to gain the best from his team by knowing us inside out." Actions spoke louder than words too. "The harder he worked, the harder you worked, nothing spoken. I'll never forget him."
"No surprise then that Ian turned to his mentor when he applied for the head groundsman's post at Cheadle Hulme School. "Keith was the first one I contacted for a reference, which he was delighted to provide."
Independent schools are keenly aware of the need to move with the times across every aspect of provision. Many retain the characterful clubhouses that hark back to the `Englishness` of cricket, for example. However, as attracting year-round revenue increasingly looms large in financial strategies, some are reinventing them as community hubs, open to the public outside school hours, as well as on tap for pupils.
Cheadle Hulme School's new sports pavilion is typical of the trend - replacing the 1950's single storey edifice with a two-level smart, light and airy leisure centre housing a gym, changing rooms, sports hall/dance studio, kitchen and events space.
"You have to move with the times," Ian states. "The gym overlooks the main square and pitches, giving those working out the inspiration to train hard to excel at their sport."
Also visible is the 350 tonne "ugly mound" of mixed soil types - stark evidence of the newly-completed construction project we are viewing it from. "I'll soon start to cut and fill around the second team square," explains Ian, "amalgamating some of the subsoil and reapplying topsoil to level up the natural gradient of the site."
Such remedial work is first on Ian's schedule of work that falls within the school's ten-year plan, which includes extending its outdoor sporting provision.
Visible from the pavilion are farmers' fields stretching away to the horizon. The school owns most of them but, although lying fallow at the moment, the transformation awaited will change the outlook dramatically. "The aim is to turn them into sportspitches," Ian reveals. Given the hectarage in question, the project could double the current playing area.
With typical candour, Ian adds: "Having never worked in an independent school, I hadn't realised how complicated the workings are, with several sports competing for priority. The heads of sport are all pretty quick to come to you and say `Can you do this for me now`. The trick is to ensure they know where you are coming from. Talking about cricket in December may not be a priority as the season does not start until April."
Given that school Head Lucy Pearson just happens to hail from the cricketing world - the 44-year-old played 12 women's test matches and more than 60 one day internationals - it looks odds-on that the coming years will see Cheadle Hulme deepen its commitment to the sport as her and Ian are batting on the same wicket.
"Lucy was the only woman to have taken five wickets in a World Cup final," he reflects admiringly, adding "and she was Player of the Year. While she is head, it would be great to take advantage of any opportunity to develop our cricketing provision as far as we can." He could just be pushing on an open door when he refers to the need to improve the ageing practice nets.
The school is already flying high though. The U14/15s were Cheshire champions last season, despite the fact that construction work on the new pavilion restricted the boundary on the seven-strip second team square.
The third team and U12s compete on the Flicx pitch - a typical summer Saturday sees at least three games staged at the school, Ian says - a challenge for the tight-knit turfcare team of three, especially when the heavy clay native to the site can impede drainage and waterlogging is an ever-present threat.
"Five years ago, James Pugh Lewis undertook a massive programme of drainage improvements," Ian explains, "installing 5m centre diagonals and 1m secondary gravel bands on the 12-strip first team outfield, the second team rugby pitch and a football pitch."
Under a £2.75m investment in its outdoor facilities, the school also pledged to add a 3G pitch to its sporting armoury, installed last autumn by S&C Slatter and still gleaming new.
"The big word is participation," Ian continues. "Girls' cricket, football and rugby are really taking off and Lucy is looking to encourage pupils to get involved. "The school now runs A, B and C teams across the sports and that's a big change."
A programme to boost participation can come at a price though, as Ian recalls the process leading up to go-ahead for the rubber crumb-filled RFU and FIFA-accredited pitch.
"A busy railway link runs right beside the pitch, with residential housing lining the other side of it. We had to take into consideration the thoughts and concerns of our neighbours, planting trees where possible and high perimeter fencing to help protect nearby houses."
The U12s/U13s rugby teams use the 52m-wide pitch in their quest for "a more expansive game", before Ian takes up the posts, laying them neatly in perimeter storage bays, and erects goalposts for U14s football to take over for its Saturday fixtures.
"The pitch comes into its own in very wet weather, when training on the natural pitches isn't possible," Ian says, "and that arrangement suits me fine, allowing us to work on the drainage."
Synthetic pitches need maintaining regularly to keep them up to scratch, he knows full well, and S&C Slatter will return quarterly to do the necessary, while Ian and the team get to grips with the day to day brushing. "The boot cleaning grid helps keep unnecessary dirt and debris off the pitch," he explains, "but leaves falling on the surface from the line of tall poplars at one end of the pitch are the biggest bugbear. We cannot use a vacuum because of the crumb infill, so it's down to the leaf blowers."
Responsible for site security, Ian will be enforcing the rules about spectators visiting the 3G pitch. "They are not supposed to stand inside the perimeter fence and I'll be keeping tight control of that," he states. Ian need not worry over animals gaining access, he continues, as the pitch is "totally sealed".
With its proud sporting heritage, no doubt one of the issues plaguing top-flight cricket at Cheadle Hulme will be addressed as a matter of urgency, as Ian explains. "A lot of cricket fixtures have been called off in recent times and last season we only used five of the 12 strips. Pupils here and at opponents' schools were not made available because of their studies, leaving too little cricket played at first or second team level.
"That's why the U13s and U14s are playing three times a week, in the hope that they are fully focused on the sport when they move up to the senior school." The four netball and tennis hard courts and six synthetic areas are heavily used too, he adds, placing added pressure on sporting loyalties to cricket.
Until 1993, the school took in boarders. "Sport was stronger in those days - when there were fewer devices to keep pupils occupied. They had the time to practise sport more often."
With two assistants and two gardeners to tend the sport and amenity elements of the estate, efficiency and passion are key team attributes, Ian stresses.
A shift in the school's estates management policy had sparked early retirement for team member John. "I think he was winding down anyway, and was planning to leave, but his departure gave me the chance to call on Peter (Holbery, Estates Manager) and poach one of his crew."
Former kitchen porter Kyle Vermeulen, 31, had worked for the estates department and, when John left, fancied a career change. "He jumped at the opportunity," Ian declares, "and loves the work."
As part of the larger estates department, Ian and his team, which also includes assistant groundsman Ian Taylor, 49, who has spent 27 years at the school, head gardener Mick Johnson, 63, and assistant gardener Steven Davenport, 42, can be seconded at a moment's notice for duties as diverse as security, car parking, snow removal and gritting when the school holds events. "It's a bit of a change for us that helps show off the school in the best light," Ian notes.
"Pride is a massive word in groundsmanship and our aim is to help create the wow factor when someone comes here for the first time. The school buildings themselves are impressive anyway but our contribution can further boost the presentation."
After the "low point" of Cheadle (Kingsway) when, says Ian, the lack of financial support made pitches impossible to maintain, the demands of Cheadle Hulme School have "re-ignited my passion".
"The backing from Pete Holbery is fantastic and there's so much to sink my teeth into. Groundsmanship is like an unfinished painting, you never quite finish it because you always want to add that little bit more. But that's the challenge that makes me get up in the morning."
It's while marking out the 400m, eight-lane athletics track and 200m sprint straight that takes Ian back to his childhood influences. "We overlooked a playing field, where dad used to mark out the football pitch. I can still smell the paint. In summer, I used to help him mow the cricket square - the pitch was really uneven but cutting it gave me such a sense of satisfaction."
"Marking out for athletics can be a pain and is so time-consuming but, after it's completed, I know that I've done my best and that's the important thing."
What's in the shed
New Holland T3030 tractor
John Deere 4110 tractor
John Deere Roberine 900 triple mower
John Deere LR175 ride-on mower
John Deere X165 ride-on
(cutting deck removed)
Jacobsen Tri King triple mower (2)
Lewis snow plough
Agrex XL Cyclone Spreader
Ransomes Super Certes mower
Allett tournament mower
Ultima Wheel linemarker machine (2)
Igo spray linemarker machine
SISIS multitiner 1.2m
Charterhouse level spike slitter 1.6m
Land Quip boom sprayer 6m
Honda rotary mower (3)
Billy Goat vacuum (2)
Trimax Pro Cut 237
Stihl leaf blower (3)
Stihl strimmer (2)
Stihl hedge trimmer (3)
Various hand tools
Photography by Jason Lock