Steeped in history, with a vision to 'strive for the greater good', The Perse School, Cambridge, is a charitable company and one of the country's leading independent day schools. Head of Grounds and Gardens, Ed Ramsden, spoke to Kerry Haywood about how he's adopting the school's vision to improve the facilities and grounds.
Surrounded by world-class academic resources on its doorstep, The Perse School offers education for three to eighteen-year olds across its 88-acre sites; 27 at the Upper (senior school) site, 6 at the Prep school site, 10 at Porson Road (Prep sports fields) and 45 at Abington (Upper sports site), plus gardens at the Prep, Upper and the Pelican (infant school) sites. In the last decade, they have invested heavily, across all sites, on new facilities offering rugby, cricket, netball, tennis, hockey, athletics and football pitches and a pavilion.
Ed tells me about the vast maintenance regimes involved. "For our cricket outfield/rugby pitches, we aim at 15-19mm during summer and 35mm in the winter. We are a very free-draining site, so I like to keep some grass length over the summer to help with drought tolerance. During summer months, we like to cut the outfields three times per week. This drops during November, but I still like to maintain grass length - cutting weekly/fortnightly at a minimum."
"I aim to undertake weekly aeration in some form. We have our own Verti-Drain, but we are now looking at a Shockwave, coupled with a Sisis Multitiner or Quadraplay, to allow us to keep the surface open. For the cricket squares we cut at 15mm. Last year, we vertidrained our squares at the Upper, but generally use a pedestrian spiker to a depth of 4 inches."
"End of season renovations usually take place in July or August, however, last year (due to Covid), they look place mid-October - which was less than ideal. Once the final usage of the squares was over, we got a week of rain which further delayed our seeding and topdressing. We were able to complete the squares at Abington and the Prep a couple of weeks earlier so, here, the rain was welcome. Now, when we look at the squares, I am very happy with how they have turned out. It was a very unpredictable year so, to be at this point of the year, in the position we are in, I am very proud of what we have achieved and how the team are beginning to develop our grounds and gardens."
The current team includes six groundstaff; George Skinner, Richard Reynolds, David Naylor, Reza O'Donnell, Karim McIver, Ben Scott and gardener Tom Middleton.
Ed continues: "Currently, one of my main focuses is the fertiliser programme. Even through Covid-19, I'm happy with how this has been implemented on the main pitches at the Upper site. We kept these pitches the best we could with skeleton staffing, as we never really knew when pupils would return. We fertilised with ICL Sierrablen Plus in March and overseeded at the same time. Due to a very dry spring, it took some time for the seed to germinate but, once we got the rain and everything kicked in, we managed to get a few applications of Primo Maxx down mixed with liquid iron. In August, we fertilised again with the Sierrablen Plus (to get us through winter) and also got one spray of the Primo Maxx down again. Now, when you look at these pitches, we have great grass coverage and the sward is really thickening up. Over the winter period and into spring, I plan to spray with biostimulants and iron to keep the plant healthy and recovering."
Left to right: George Skinner, Tom Middleton, Karim McIver, Reza O'Donnell, Ben Scott, Ed Ramsden and David Naylor
"Sadly, due to staffing levels and what was likely to be in play, this process could not be rolled out over all sites and the biggest hit was at Abington. With this site being out of town, and mainly used for fixtures, it was clear that it would not be in use for quite some time. However, we now have one of the team (Richard) up there full-time. He has got back on top of the site and, as a result of the attention, it really is looking good. We still haven't fertilised there, as we still can't see fixtures being played anytime soon. What we are trying to avoid is a big peak in growth and to be under pressure, when we just don't know what the short-term futures could be like. Abington is a site that is looking at being used a lot more in the future and we are in the early stages of planning some reconstructed pitches to lift the standards. This is a really exciting prospect and a project that I'm looking forward to undertaking."
"In the past, I have tested many fertilisers to get to where I want to be, and I now look for longevity; in a school setting, I cannot always get on the pitches during term time. When I fertilise in our Easter break, I want to know that I have something down all the way through to August. This avoids peaks and troughs in the plant growth and, ultimately, its health. I then have the option to spray feed over the top, if we want to perk things up for fixtures or events. I also want a product that I can put down that will not scorch - I don't want to be in a position where I have waited until a window of opportunity, only to find I can't carry out the fertilising because there is no rain due that night. Thirdly, I want the colour; a well-presented and healthy-looking pitch goes a long way. Even if you are not completely happy with your surface, when it presents well, you can still take pride in what you have achieved. When you get everything right, it will generally be healthy and improving anyway, so the colour becomes a bonus. I have received a lot of advice and knowledge to set up the optimum programme from Emma Kilby of ICL, Tom Weaver at Agrovista Amenity and Geoff Little at Core Amenity."
The soil profile across all sites is a sandy loam, which Ed describes as 'great in the winter as it is very free draining'. "The downside is during summer when we dry out very quickly. The common problem with this is that you leach nutrients; we have used slow release fertilisers, which seem to have kept things ticking over, and held on to colour really well. We annually send off soil samples for testing and, on top of this, we have our own sampler to regularly check the profile. So far, there haven't been any major issues highlighted through these, so I am not dictated by this."
"However, compaction is a big problem on all of our sites, especially at Abington. This is an area of concern, particularly at the beginning of the rugby season, which we are looking to rectify in the short-term with more aeration, to really loosen the profile. We have introduced a new fertiliser programme using slow release products so, along with the aeration, I believe we can improve the root depth. I strongly believe that going back to basics will make a big difference."
"The Upper also suffers from quite a bit of thatch in a few areas, so scarifying is an area we need to address on the outfields, and we are looking into additional equipment to carry out this procedure. Verti-cutting is currently undertaken out on our main cricket squares and it's also a big part of our pitch preparations."
As well as the new fertiliser programme, Ed has made small changes to his seed selection and introduced growth regulators, which he believes will also make a big difference. "Last year, we used Masterline PM81 on all the outfields which have irrigation and I'm waiting to use Masterline PM80 on all the other areas, but this has been delayed due to current circumstances. The reason for the PM80 on non-irrigated areas is due to the claim of better drought tolerance. My knowledge is that it contains 20% 4Turf tetraploid perennial rye grass, which means it has four sets of chromosomes (which in turn means it has twice the chloroplast in each cell). This allows the plant to produce more chlorophyll, which creates a healthier plant that is more tolerant of stress."
The city of Cambridge typically has very low rainfall as well as high average temperatures, so these two things combined (along with free draining soil) can prove tricky in summer. The school has two boreholes; one on the Upper site and one at Abington. Ed continues: "This allows us to at least water our main areas with the travelling sprinkler system. I believe slow release fertiliser application and achieving good grass coverage is a big part of coping with extremes. I have also looked into more drought tolerant grass seed and Geoff Little has been a great help on advising and working with me to find solutions for this. I also use Primo Maxx on pitches where possible which, again, I think really helps with the stress of drought."
"It would be great to use wetting agents, but to have a programme in place to spray is very difficult, due to high usage of the site. We spray during holidays, but it is not consistent enough for wetting agents. I would like to see the spraying of growth regulators and wetting agents increased across all sites, but fitting this around a busy school is not easy. A sporadic approach would not be a good use of money and resources."
Ed works with his manager, the Director of Estates Paul Kingston, to control the overall budgets. They work together to develop it and Ed manages it day to day, as well as providing an annual Capital Expenditure budget.
Having met Ed a few years ago at a European conference, it was clear that he had a strong passion and interest in the job, and I was keen to learn how it all started. "Upon leaving school I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I looked around for courses that suited my enjoyment for working outdoors and came across Myerscough College. In the first year, I studied a first diploma in Horticulture and I realised that turfcare was my main passion so, in year two, I studied my National Certificate in Groundsmanship and Greenkeeping. During this time, I undertook work experience at Mount Skip Golf Course in Hebden Bridge, and what a place that is; amazing views of the valley, where you can see the weather coming in from all angles."
"After college, my first position was at Calderdale Council in Halifax. I was there for seven years and covered all manner of roles such as working in the plant nursery and on the mowing team - cutting verges at schools and parks, but my favourite role was bowls green maintenance. This job overall was a big part of my development and it gave me a realistic broad experience. I realised that sometimes things are out of your control and it is how you deal with them that counts, i.e. repairing damage to greens that you have spent time and effort preparing. Following this, I went to Leicester Racecourse and I learned how presentation is so important; I loved the preparation of the paddock and the build up to the race days."
"Circumstances at the time, led me to take a groundsman's role at Leicester Grammar School and I quickly realised that a school environment really felt like the place for me. Standards are high and the variety of sports surfaces, lawns and gardens are a big part of selling the school and its facilities. I got promoted to head groundsman and built up all areas to a standard I was very proud of. After a few years, I felt I had got as far as I could at the school, but it will always be a big part of me; it was where I proved to myself what I could do. Mike Hood is taking that school forward now, with a solid team around him, and I am confident standards will just get better. My journey went on to Churchers College in Hampshire for a short stint and nine months later I moved here to The Perse School."
"What I also love about a school environment is the ecology side of things, which is a big passion of mine. We have an Ecology Society at the Upper School that have started to develop a wildflower strip on the site and they are also building some bug hotels alongside this. Future plans are that we create a wild space at our Abington site which would include a woodland with various trees for different uses. Our outdoor pursuits department at the school work a lot with wood, so hopefully we can start to support this by growing trees to work with and having a coppice. Within this, there would be a big focus on wildlife with habitats being developed to support various animals and insects and we will also be looking at having a wildflower meadow in this area. This is a very exciting prospect for Abington and something that will be put in place for students to enjoy for years to come."
Right: Karim McIver with his recent qualification
Given Ed's background, it's clear to understand that presentation ranks very highly! "A well-presented pitch is not just a stripe on a pitch, it shows that work has been carried out and pride has been taken whilst doing it. I am obsessed with how to present things. When I look at all the different sports fields, lawns and gardens that pop up on my Twitter feed, it amazes me the pride and effort that goes into it. I believe that, in a school setting, the importance of the groundsperson's role can sometimes be forgotten. I feel very lucky here at The Perse, that what myself and my team achieve is recognised and everyone appreciates the top-quality surfaces we achieve and they understand what it takes to get there. There is also a desire to improve right throughout the team. We all understand that our work can be the first impression when people come through the school gates, so it is imperative that we present the school well."
"I am slightly restructuring how we achieve these results, by getting away from the all hands to the pump approach. Instead, we are putting in place site specific teams including different areas of expertise to cover each area of their site."
"The team are all fantastic and there is a big focus on advancing their careers and working closely with HR to ensure everything is in place. Personally, I would like to go out more and meet people (as soon as it's safe to do so), as I feel seeing other schools and facilities can only be a positive thing in sharing ideas and methods of working with the whole team."
"Sometimes, people's general opinion of the industry is not a good one and I don't feel that it is classed as a skilled trade; 'you just cut grass" is still a common view of what we do. It's a very difficult topic of how to promote our industry. When it comes to schools, I think talking directly to bursars would be an option. I know that they have a seminar every year and maybe this could be a platform to use as a sales pitch? I believe we are a big selling point to any school and, given the right support, training etc,. we can lift our profile, whilst also lifting the school's. Recognising skills is also key. Employing someone that can cut grass will get you someone that can cut grass. Employing a groundsperson gets you someone who wants to improve the surfaces as a whole and create something which is their pride and joy. This will pay back in abundance."
"Here, there is a big focus on what we call the 'Perse Pride' and support and understanding is always offered for us to achieve the results and standards required."
Ed concluded: "Media has been my inspiration. Seeing sports pitches on TV or on social media really pushed me to achieve better with what I have. Anyone who prepares pitches or grounds that people admire are an inspiration to me!"
Hear hear Ed.
Were you or your staff furloughed at any stage?
I live onsite so I haven't been furloughed at any point during the pandemic. At first, we had myself and one other person on site and the rest of the team were furloughed. This improved over the next few weeks allowing three of us to be in. The team then went on a rota of three weeks on - three weeks off increasing throughout the summer.
How did this affect you, both personally and at work?
I have only been here since January 2020 so, I have to say, this wasn't an easy start. As a family, we were unable to get out and explore the area and make friends. Workwise, I was really thrown in at the deep end; I hadn't had time to properly know my way around the sites, let alone get to know the team around me. After a short time, when others returned, it was just a case of trying to keep on top of things. This was so frustrating; when you arrive at a new job you want to show what you can do. It felt at times like I just couldn't win and things were going backwards. When team members came back in, it was great to see the support that they gave me and they just got on with anything that needed doing. The site was very quiet and it was just a generally strange feeling.
Were you able to keep on top of things?
Yes, to a point. The school never closed, as we were open to Key Worker children, but we were aware that the school could fully reopen at short notice, so our main sites had to be kept at a good-to-go standard.
What condition was the surface in once you were able to return full-time?
Everything was good, apart from Abington. This site had a lot of catching up to do but, after a few weeks back, apart from colour and presentation, we were on top again.
Have you still been able to purchase sundries such as fertiliser, topdressing, hire in machinery/contractors etc.?
We have still been able to purchase what we needed. It was the staffing levels that dictated what we did or didn't do.
Have there been any positives arising from the current situation?
We are getting through it and, despite everything, we are still making progress.
Has your mental health suffered?
Sadly yes. In my past, I have suffered with depression and I have found things really hard to deal with. I had two big moves across the country (in twelve months), which was a big ask in itself - but, to throw Covid in there as well was a bit much. I am really hard on myself when it comes to work and constantly want to push things forward. For everything to be taken out of my hands, and see things going backwards, was really hard for me. We also have three children, who needed to be home-schooled, whilst my wife and I both worked throughout. I attended a cognitive behavioural therapy counselling course in the spring (via Zoom) to try and find a way to deal with things. I have also ended up on medication to try and get myself back in some kind of order.
In grounds, there is so much to deal with that is not in your control and this is something I have had to work hard on to accept. I have tried to become proactive in my approach to work, so that when things are sprung on you, or something changes, you have done all you can to be prepared for the unexpected. Covid blew all this out of the water, as it was never achievable to be on top of everything. What you do now can improve how things will be next year, and so can what you don't do! For example, if the square plays badly next summer, no one will understand when I blame Covid - from eight months earlier.
I put far too much pressure on myself, which is something that I believe is common in the grounds industry.
How do you see the future panning out?
I'm genuinely really excited about the future. There is so much I want to achieve and I think I am in the right place to do it. I am feeling a lot more positive in myself and things are back on track. I really hope that we have a much more settled year and we can build on what we have started.
The Perse School was founded in 1615 by the will of Stephen Perse, M.D., a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. It was first established in Lorteburn Lane, later called Free School Lane, to provide for 100 free scholars from all backgrounds. The original site is now the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.
The school quickly established its academic credentials, sending a regular flow of scholars to Caius College. During the 18th century, however, it fell into a long decline. The governors of the school, Caius College, neglected to increase the salaries of the Master and Usher for over a hundred years. Unsurprisingly, staff of talent were not attracted, nor were pupils. The posts became sinecures for junior fellows of Caius and the surplus endowment was pocketed by the senior fellows. This torpor and corruption was not uncommon at the time - Harrow and Rugby also nearly closed. Protests in the local paper forced the governors to keep the School open but it took a court case in 1837 to reform the College's abuse of Perse's Trust and to put the School back on a proper footing. In 1881 the complementary Perse School for Girls opened with funding from the town, the University and the Perse endowment.
A series of more energetic headmasters restored the fortunes of the school during the late 19th century and it moved into new buildings at Gonville Place in 1890. The experimental teaching methods of Headmaster W.H.D. Rouse (1902-28), notably the
Direct Method of teaching foreign languages, attracted attention and talented teachers. The Perse established an international reputation in a matter of years, and Rouse also set up a Prep
School and two boarding houses (including Hillel House, a Jewish boarding house). He also secured the ground on Hills Road on which he hoped to build a new school. The Upper School eventually moved to Hills Road in 1960 under the Headmastership of Stanley Stubbs (1945-69).
The Perse received grants from the government as early as Rouse's time, in respect of its experimental language teaching. From 1945-1976 it was a Direct Grant school offering free places to some 40% of pupils. Following the government's withdrawal of the grant, The Perse became independent.
The Sixth Form began welcoming girls in 1995 and the school's move to full co-education was completed in 2012. During this time The Perse School for Girls became a separate entity, evolving into The Stephen Perse Foundation, a diamond school group in Cambridge and Saffron Walden.
The Perse celebrated its 400th anniversary in the academic year 2015/16.
The Times placed The Perse top of the league table of 193 independent co-ed schools' I/GCSE results in 2019. This was the fourth time in recent years that The Perse achieved this feat which is testimony to the year-on-year success of Perse students in their I/GCSE and A level exams. In 2020, 93% of A level entries were awarded an A* or A grade (or the Pre U equivalent).