Career progression for his staff is vitally important to John Lyon School's Grounds Manager Chris Lynch, and, as he tells Blair Ferguson, coupled with a passion for the job and presentation designed to create an impression, life at this premier educational establishment has been a whirlwind experience.
Working for twenty years on Harrow-On-The-Hill means you learn a thing or two about the importance of first impressions. When it comes to schools and the turf, gardens and flowers surrounding them, opinions are made in an instant and often set the tone for the thoughts of prospective parents.
This priority is nothing new for John Lyon School Grounds Manager Chris Lynch. Fifteen years at Harrow School led to a few years at management level and, in 2016, an opportunity at the neighbouring John Lyon School arose to give him a chance to take on a challenge of his own.
We've established that first impressions count and, driving through the Sudbury Playing Field gates in early July, there was plenty to be impressed by. The 26-acre site, home to cricket, football and an FIH accredited hockey pitch which is also used for tennis, is a few days into some rest after a typically punishing school schedule but, given the quality of presentation, you would think it hadn't been played on for months.
It is an exciting time at John Lyon with the all-boys school going co-educational for the first time in their 145-year history having merged last year with another school in Harrow, Quainton Hall. Our conversation about all things John Lyon and the industry takes place on the pavilion balcony overlooking the pitches and, a short way into the interview, Chris' passion for his job is already coming through, but more so is his desire to develop others and drive them forward in their own careers.
"All I want to do is provide the best surfaces I can for people, but I also want to try and give back as much as I can to promote the industry," he explained. "I've been in it for twenty years professionally (and three years non-professional volunteer work), and I've had the opportunity to work in some incredible settings. Harrow was an astonishing site with a great budget and machinery, and what we could achieve there was incredible. We won the grounds team of the year award in 2014, and to go on from that and become a manager at John Lyon has been a whirlwind seven or eight years."
"But, in that time, I've been able to bring in different people and work with them to the point they can run their own site and, for me, that's all you can really ask for. If people are happy and they want to progress, then that makes me happy as well."
"I have been fortunate to have had two employers that have been very good at getting me on courses of all varieties. I have completed my work-based NVQ level 2 and 3 City and Guilds in sports turf, chainsaw and spraying licences, as well as more health and safety training than I care to remember. I have also done many different training courses on machinery maintenance, pests and diseases, farming and safeguarding."
"Along with that training, being able to get some level of management in the early days of your career is so important because, as I found out very quickly, you might think you know everything, but you soon find out you always still have a lot to learn. My over confidence led to mistakes early on in management, but making mistakes is part of learning and it is best to make these early. So I encourage responsibility in my staff now and give them tasks to manage so they can learn and develop their own techniques."
"We have brought two brand-new starters in now, and both are so keen to learn, it almost makes you feel young again when you see these early professionals at twenty-something years old come in and want to learn straight away. It makes me remember the passion I had at their age."
"We start the first six months with their probation period and, as soon as that is done, both should progress to some form of land based NVQ and potentially several other courses based around their abilities. I think continuing constant education and courses is a great way of keeping staff happy and securing them longer term."
"I think that education is something this industry still needs to really tackle and grasp because schools like John Lyon are very good at investing in that, but I don't think that other set ups across the profession necessarily push their staff to do more education and they really should do."
"For anyone that works under my management, I want them to go out there and have every opportunity to succeed, whether that be here or somewhere else. Joe Naughton, who I worked previously with at Harrow and took on here, has now progressed to running his own site, North Middlesex Cricket Club. And Mark Chandler, who was here for nearly ten years, has gone off to manage Brentham Tennis and Cricket Club. It's a fantastic opportunity for both to go out and start their journeys on the management side of their careers and I am very proud of both. Sometimes, people don't want that managerial pressure, and you shouldn't force it on them, but I think you should always give people the chance to continue their professional development."
"If you think management is for you, then I believe it is important that you assess your career and say 'now' is my chance, don't wait. Speak to your manager, ask for more responsibility, put yourself out there for projects and this can eventually lead to running a team, a department or a site as well as managing other people. You might bring in an eighteen-year-old or a twenty-five-year-old who, in three or five years, can say to you that you helped them get to the point where they can manage projects or greater responsibility either with you or elsewhere."
"And it's that progression through the industry to make sure we've got young men and women coming in because that's probably one of our biggest problems in this profession. Young people are not coming into the industry, probably because of the money, but there is money to be made there, you just have to progress, and part of doing that is education and continuing development."
Having this training ethos and belief in the power of the first impression is crucial to the John Lyon operation, but backing it up with the final product is just as important. The pitches are used for training every day of the week, with fixtures played several times a week on top of that. The Old Lyonian Football Club also use the site for training and fixtures, as do Harrow Hockey Club and the Bowmen of Harrow. From September, the sports schedule will be added to further by the addition of Quainton Hall, whose numbers will add to the usage of Sudbury Fields and the 600 John Lyon students.
Mixed in with private hires, it leaves the grounds team with roughly ten-fifteen sports free days a year and makes surface management crucial. Every time someone comes through the gates, the expectation is to see a beautifully presented field and, over five years, Chris has dialled in a programme that meets those standards.
"Like any manager, I will have an element of pressure to perform to high standards, but most of the pressure is from myself. I have always been a firm believer that presentation is key. I know exactly where the site is good and where it needs improving, but I want the entrances and surfaces to look as good as possible as soon as the students, staff, and outside users enter the site. We aren't a massive ground compared to others, but in a way, that means it must perform even higher. I am so fortunate to work with an excellent sports department that is very respectful of the grounds and the work we put into it. Their respect for the facilities is as important as almost anything we do to look after the grounds."
"I try to treat all areas of the fields the same way, but our 1st team football pitch and our 1st team outfield area are my priority areas. With extremely high usage, this is often a challenge to keep these looking fresh, but we do the best we can to recover and present the site for each use. I also communicate daily with the Director of Sport and the various heads of specific sports on where to set up to spread the wear of these daily training sessions and matches."
"Starting academically in September, we will have all ten pitch/training areas set up, ready to go. We will also have a deep cleaned MUGA and the extra-curricular activity areas all set up. This will last right through until March with a monthly deep aeration programme and weekly light aeration, cutting, scarifying and brushing. We will run this alongside a monthly liquid feed with a base granular to keep everything ticking over into the cold and wet conditions."
"The machinery we use and how it performs is very important in this process. My main bits of kit would probably be my Wiedenmann Super 500 Scarifying Collection Unit and my Terra Spike. We run aeration of thick and thin tining every two or three weeks. We cut at 26mm, which is relatively short for pitches when they are getting used seven times a day, but they like them to be fast."
"I always try and go through the surface as many times as I can to keep that air flow, give them a better chance to dry and to keep the plant healthy. The Super 500 scarifying unit is a fantastic piece of kit and it will leave a clean finish. It keeps the surface healthy by thinning the dead grass and removing the dead growth so the air keeps moving through the top of the grass plant and soil and leaves a nice stripe as well."
"Heading into Easter is our busiest three weeks. We turn the site round into four cricket outfields but renovate the pitches with 450 tonnes of good quality sand before seeding. In addition, we set up twelve tennis courts on our MUGA and prep all summer activity areas. As soon as the summer term shuts down, we go into a full cleanout of the outfields/pitches to make sure the grass is as strong as possible for the return of the students for pre-season in August. It is often very rushed, and you have to hope for a little bit of assistance from the weather gods! It's always a full-on year, but we are fortunate to now have such good machinery and a reasonable budget for various resources."
Sticking to this plan has seen the site steadily improve, with the progress being recognised by the wider sporting community as John Lyon was named in the Top 100 Schools for Cricketers last year. An achievement like that is a fantastic marker for the Sports Department and Chris and his team of the quality and consistency they've managed to produce year on year, but the improvements haven't been limited to pitches alone.
The site has been chemical-free for just under two years, with Chris bringing in a ban on glyphosate and other such products. This ecological approach has been met with the school introducing beehives, creating ecological piles along with wildflower areas, and allowing a percentage of the site to be left to long grass to promote wildlife. This has allowed Sudbury Playing Fields to be used in the wider education of students away from sports and embrace the wildlife on offer, and at the two and a half acre outside space at the main school site which itself is home to formal gardens and a large number of protected rose species.
Chris - as he has already mentioned - is fortunate to have the backing of the school when it comes to projects, and the plans for taking pitch quality to the next level are already underway.
"I have an ageing drainage system which is coming to the end of its lifespan, and a very limited irrigation system," Chris explains. "I have been working with my school's Bursar and Finance Director to come up with phased implementation planning to combat this, and I think the last 5-10 years has really shown how volatile and extreme our weather can be, and we need to start development now to combat these events in the future."
"For me, having projects like this gives you something to work towards and keeps that enthusiasm going for your site. So, over the next two years, the plan is to run pop-ups across the entire right side of the site and, the following year, we'll have it on the other half of the site. I have extensive drainage plans but need to level off a few areas first and my irrigation system will help me grow these back in more quickly and assist any new drainage projects."
"Doing a project like this is also great for the guys on the team because of the experience they can get from it. If I can project manage a job and then pass on some of the smaller areas of the project management to my staff, they will learn from that and be involved in the process of putting in irrigation or drainage across a pitch and will benefit from these techniques."
"I'm excited about what we can achieve with the site once we have better drainage and better irrigation. In my opinion, it's already a good surface, but I still have great aspirations for the site and its facilities."