With a huge remit of responsibility, Yarm School's Estates Manager, Alan Hodgson, has chalked up a generation devoted to steering the expansion of this North-east success story
Schools, like football clubs, can vary dramatically in the scope and scale of sporting provision and grounds maintenance.
The Premiership of private schools run turf machinery fleets to rival any in football. Many others must adopt more creative means to ensure facilities are kept up to scratch, especially given the relentless advance of health and safety issues across education and the need to ensure students can play sport in a protective environment.
In some schools, personnel skilled in one aspect of provision are assuming wider responsibility for grounds maintenance tasks as their expertise broadens to embrace more duties outdoors, as well as those within school buildings.
Yarm School is a case in point. Founded in 1978 by a group of parents in the Georgian market town of Yarm, North Yorkshire, it rests on a picturesque stretch of the River Tees and is set in landscaped gardens based around The Friarage - characterful buildings dating back some 250 years.
The school's mix of modern and historic accommodation provides outstanding classroom, music and sporting facilities. Although still young, Yarm embraces many of the traditions and features found in the best independents.
Arguably the major educational success story of the North-east in recent times, it is firmly established among the country's leading schools of its kind.
The attractive campus includes many modern, purpose-built facilities, such as the eyecatchingly futuristic boathouse and new sand-dressed hockey pitch, those befitting a school bidding to match its sporting prowess with its academic one.
Yarm School spreads its sporting provision across three sites - two nearby totalling twenty acres of playing fields, including the cricket square, whilst those on the campus, aside from the new pitch and boathouse, include a smaller sand-filled synthetic surface and MUGA facility.
Co-ordinating grounds maintenance, as well as a huge spread of site responsibilities, is Estates Manager Alan Hodgson, who heads a thirty strong team spanning caretakers, gardeners, contractors and synthetic turf specialist Garry Cox.
Formerly employed by CLS, the natural and synthetic turf sports contractor that recently installed the hockey facility and built the boathouse under a £2m plus project, Garry will know as much about day-to-day running of the pitch as anyone.
"His experience and expertise with these surfaces is key," Alan stresses. Intended to give Yarm a further shot in the arm for its hockey development programme, the sand-dressed pitch is maintained regularly to ensure it meets the exacting playing and safety characteristics demanded of schools.
"The maintenance programme includes applying drag mats, a greens groom zig-zag twice weekly and vacuuming leaves and debris off the surface," Alan adds.
In the throes of the tennis season, when no fewer than twelve Harrod UK 'zip-up' courts are erected on the pitch, Garry is busy ensuring that all functions as it should.
Yarm runs a bustling summer tennis programme across its Prep and Senior Schools - playing at competition level, with teams also touring.
"We have some excellent players," says Alan, who has witnessed the rise of the sport at Yarm over his tenure. As 2016 is the first season on the fresh surface, everything has to be just so.
"The nets are made to a new cantilevered weighted system," Alan explains. "We are delighted with them. They are easy to set up and are also less expensive to maintain than traditional ones."
Meanwhile, the MUGA holds another three courts, Garry sweeps in the polymeric surface and sprays the area to control moss and algae.
Alan is a longstanding employee of the school, evolving over twenty-eight years from a builder and contractor to expand his scale of responsibility to oversee caretaking, maintenance and project management of Yarm's developments, which have totalled £25m in recent years.
Although the school does not employ a head groundsman as such, Alan is, to all intents and purposes, fulfilling that role, with help from GGN Sportscare, the sports contractor that has serviced the playing fields for nearly twenty years.
His sphere of responsibility is vast. Overseeing the school's maintenance falls within his remit, as does security, electrical testing and inspecting. He is Yarm's health and safety advisor and chairs the fifteen strong health and safety committee, which deals with risk assessments, method statements and H & S audits for teaching and non-teaching departments, discussing policy issues with deputy head Mr David Woodward.
"Since I began at Yarm School, my responsibility has grown as the school has grown from 300 pupils to 1,250 today," he notes. "We are a thriving, successful and buoyant establishment that is certainly making its mark in education."
Proving his statement is the fact that the Government recently invited headmaster David Dunn to speak to the House of Lords on how to thrive in a recession.
Caretakers in schools are evolving into other roles generally and that's true at Yarm, where Sean Howard tackles gardening tasks such as tending the attractive borders surrounding the campus buildings and the extensive planting completed under CLS's multi-million pound project that included major outlay on amenity turfing and landscaping.
"We have invested £100,000 in soft landscaping alone to improve the whole presence of the estate," Alan reveals. "That includes planting trees and hedging, winter and summer bedding and turfed areas around the main entrance and in the car park areas, which have been completely transformed."
These latest improvements have raised the campus to new standards of presentation and impact, created under a project that involved complexities of tree preservation orders on an environmentally important site.
"We have some special large specimen trees on site," Alan confirms, "including a 250-300 year old London plane and a cedar tree that is at least two centuries old. There is also a rare Gingkho tree and weeping beech."
"Some trees had to be removed to make way for the synthetic pitch, but the tree replacement scheme has ensured we maintain the species diversity with a mix of London plane and oak, for example. Garry oversees the tree maintenance programme, watering and feeding to keep growth healthy."
Yarm has ploughed some £30,000 into permanent hedging that includes buxus, which is thriving in its North-eastern setting. "It only needs cutting once a year," says Alan, "when it is bone dry, to prevent box blight."
Yarm's 'grand design' is a source of inspiration for many, not least Alan. "I gain enormous job satisfaction from working here. We are all realising the fruits of our work over several years - the last five to seven have seen a period of incredibly tough redevelopment of the senior school, but the results are there for all to see."
After such an intense period of activity, Alan can pause to reflect. "I'm enjoying catching up with my contacts; drawing up new schedules, that sort of thing. The last few years have see contracts rolling over but, now that we have finished the main buildings work, I can meet up to congratulate them on a job brilliantly done - a huge feather in their cap."
"I run a great team. Day to day, my deputy is head of caretaking and maintenance, Paul Vardy - no relation to Leicester City legend Jamie, but I place him in that same bracket of worth."
All projects have their trials and tribulations. The sheet metal piling pounded into the landscaped site in preparation for installing the synthetic pitch proved "a low point" for Alan. "This was a major civil engineering undertaking with high levels of noise disruption. A tough couple of weeks, but it had to be done."
Such building issues Alan takes in his stride, planning out problems before they arise to keep everything running smoothly. What advice can he give to those about to embark on expansive redevelopment?
"Employ a strong design team, with a really capable architect and project team. Also, do not be won over by the top brass of large construction companies, who will come on site and promise everything, only for you to discover later that their site people cannot deliver."
"The client relationship is fundamental," he insists. "We have been lucky working with CLS. Personality clashes can start you off on the wrong footing, but we enjoyed a great working relationship with them."
The new blends with the old beautifully at Yarm. Parts of the site stretch back to 1770, when The Friarage building was erected as a family home using masonry from an old priory on the site, dating back to the 13th century.
English Heritage maintains a watching brief for every bit of work conducted on the school estate, Alan notes, including the once dilapidated Tudor dovecote, renovated to provide an outdoor amphitheatre for drama productions.
Does the state-of-the-art rowing edifice that now overhangs the river prompt Alan to take a row along the Tees? "Yarm has invested heavily in its rowing - a single boat can cost £20,000 - but I just don't find the time to pursue sport. My two children do though, as they attend the school."
A characteristic look to the future from a man whose thoughts often turn there to keep the Yarm School machinery oiled and functioning.
Multi-million pound project creates major sporting hub
CLS Sports were selected to deliver "an outstanding new hockey and rowing facility" at Yarm School late last year, along with a complete car park and landscape refurbishment.
Located on an environmentally sensitive site on the bank of the River Tees, Yarm School finally gained planning permission to boost its existing rowing facilities and hockey pitch facility under a multi-million pound project that included a new boathouse, new sand-dressed synthetic surface and extensive landscaping works, showcasing the construction and installation expertise of contractors CLS Sports.
Opened by former pupil and Olympic gold medal rower Katherine Copeland MBE, the innovative rowing facility presents students with a great opportunity to excel at one of Britain's worldleading sports.
The school had faced a major battle over several years to gain planning consent. The boathouse's impact on surrounding trees - all holding preservation orders and set within a conservation zone - as well as the river frontage were key factors in the local authority's considerations in giving the green light.
Following a detailed public consultation, preparation of architectural models and PowerPoint presentations, consent was granted in 2014 through delegated powers.
"A flexible and collaborative approach was essential for success," said the company's director Stephen Miller, the third generation of the family to work for the sports and landscaping concern.
"This was one of our largest projects to date," he added, "and includes construction of a full-sized floodlit synthetic hockey pitch installed with pozi-drain system, reduced fines sub-base, grit layer, Tarmacadam engineered base, shockpad and Domo Hockey Xtreme 18mm sand-dressed carpet."
The new synthetic pitch bolsters provision for the school, replacing the original two-thirds sized hockey pitch, whilst also included in the development was the extension of the car park and new school entrance.
The pitch, constructed on a significant incline, involved CLS undertaking extensive earthworks and installing a sheet pile retaining wall before it could be laid.
"Yarm School enjoys a strong rowing tradition in the North of England as well as an academically high one," said Estates Manager Alan Hodgson, tasked with project managing the works. "What were once basic facilities have been transformed into superb ones that include a new jetty and slipway."
The futuristic cedar clad boathouse, which includes leading edge training, changing rooms and office, features a large cantilever structure overhanging the river.
The Juliette balcony offers excellent riverside viewing for spectators, whilst a large platform on the other side presents a grandstand view of the new hockey pitch; large enough for twelve tennis courts in summer.
Fully funded by the school, the project presented a major boost for Yarm's pupils among its three to 18-year-old age range spanning nursery, pre-prep, preparatory, junior and senior levels. The school also opens its doors to the community with a 750-seat auditorium that hosts numerous school and external events.
"This presented a huge challenge in completing, what was, a logistically highly complex project," Alan adds, "and relied on close co-ordination with CLS Sports, which we appointed due to their wealth of experience and expertise in the sports construction sector and their success with several other projects here."
Stephen Miller added: "Because the new pitch extends on to the flood plain, a 480m3 attenuation tank was included in the works as a requirement of planning consent. The floodlighting was tailored to the site due to the close proximity of neighbouring properties and varying external ground levels.
"CLS Landscape and Earthworks provided major soft and hard landscaping that involved tree removal and planting of deciduous and evergreen species, drainage and earthworks, construction of resin-bonded parking bays, with a sustainable drainage system installed beneath it and planting and turfing around the entrance and car park area."
Right hand man
Guy Jones is Alan's right hand man for turf maintenance duties at the school's nearby Green Lane and Aislaby sportsgrounds.
Also handling hedgecutting and lawn reseeding on campus, Guy has been working with Yarm School for some fifteen years. Specialising in natural turf maintenance, he is eminently qualified to tend the twenty acre provision - eight rugby pitches of varying sizes for varying age groups, plus a cricket square and athletics track at Green Lane; two full-size rugby pitches, with one football surface at Aislaby, three miles away.
Although regional in remit, Guy services enough sportsgrounds to notice trends forming part of national shift in provision - one of them the decline of cricket in schools. "Much of the sport has disappeared because schools do not have the money to maintain them," he says. "Yarm runs a square with nine strips and is committed to providing cricket for pupils."
Guy, 47, runs a five-strong team of grounds professionals, including those he brought on as apprentices at Askham Bryan College. He entered the turfcare industry through agriculture nearly twenty-five years ago and grass cutting remains the biggest slice of his business, he notes - everything from schools fields to village greens.
For the square, he applies a cricket mix seed, overseeding the rugby and football areas with perennial ryegrass mix.
"We have wet, heavy clay here and the pitches can flood, becoming saturated through the winter," Guy explains, so he is busy during the week preparing the playing surfaces for Saturday fixtures, Cup games and rescheduled games.
The team mows every week throughout the year, spiking fortnightly during the autumn and winter.
In spring, Guy applies a 9:7:7 outfield fertiliser, a summer application of 5:0:12, whilst an autumn 5:12:12 completes the feeding programme. A high iron fertiliser is put on the cricket square in spring to rid it of moss.
What's in the shed?
Guy's machinery policy is to run "two of everything" to ensure he always has the right kit for the job.
Massey Ferguson M5425 and 5610 tractors. "I've always had a Massey."
Trimax Pegasus rotary deck mower for the rugby pitches to cut height of 75mm (approximately three inches). "A major improvement on cylinder alternatives as it avoids the damage they can cause."
Toro 7490, seven gang mower for cutting the cricket outfield and the football pitch.
Toro LT3340 mower for the cricket outfield and tidying up the edges of the field.
Linemarker for summer sports, such as rounders and shot put.
Two Hayter LT324 triple mowers for lawns and cricket pitches.
Ransomes Auto Certes 21in for cutting strips.
Wiedenmann Terra Spike. "I bought it in 2001 and used it first at Yarm School."
Charterhouse Verti-Drain. "Given the heavy clay soil, what would I do without it?"