"Of course, people are more important than buildings, and brilliant teachers should be able to run a good school in a pig sty, but mercifully it's a point we don't have to prove at Bromsgrove"
Chris Edwards MA, Headmaster, Bromsgrove School
There's a revolution going on at Bromsgrove School. No, the pupils aren't revolting - well, not in the warmongering sense - rather, a new, some might say, trendy Headmaster with a vision to make the school one of the best independents in the country.
The Headmaster in question is Chris Edwards MA (note, Chris, not Christopher), who has been overseeing a build programme of titanic proportions.
Hard on the heels of eighteen new science laboratories (opened in 2011), come two new residential buildings for senior girls (all en-suite), a new Prep School boarding house for pupils aged 7-13, an immense sports arena, a fitness suite, dance studios, a spectacular hospitality suite with dining facilities, a cafe for parents and pupils, a refurbished swimming pool and a brand new, landscaped entrance to the Senior School. All are due to be completed this summer.
After more than 450 years of being a successful, but relatively small school, Bromsgrove has, in the last few years, become one of Britain's largest independents, with 1,600 day and boarding pupils aged two to eighteen. That growth in pupil numbers has now been wedded to the build programme.
There will be no further increase in pupil numbers; these spectacular new developments are for the current role. The state of the art sports venues will also be used by the local and wider community (indeed, national teams have already booked in to train), whilst the new residential accommodation gives weekly boarding options for local pupils aged 7 to 18.
The ongoing work, and the school's successes, are the subject of a regular 'Headmaster's Blog' on the website. Humorously written (a read is recommended), Mr Edwards' character and passion shine through the words in, what appears to be, a considered attempt to take the 'stuffiness' out of reporting independent school life.
OFSTED continues to rate the Prep and Senior School "Outstanding", and The Good Schools Guide says Bromsgrove "inhabits the academic stratosphere". But it also says Bromsgrove pupils are "refreshingly free from false sophistication".
Notable alumni include actors Ian Carmichael and Trevor Eve, rugby players Andy Goode, Ben Foden and Matt Mullan, Dire Straits John Illsley, and the author of the Horse Whisperer, Nicholas Evans.
Bromsgrove School is set in 100 acres of tree-lined grounds, and has extensive sports facilities, including two floodlit artificial pitches, floodlit netball/tennis courts, swimming pool, two sports halls, one with seating for 500 spectators, all-weather athletics track and numerous grass pitches.
The grass pitches are dedicated to rugby, hockey and football, with a number of the pitches becoming outfields for cricket in the summer term.
There are six rugby pitches at the main school and four at the Prep school site, three of these are converted to football during the spring term. The school has a number of cricket squares dotted around the campus. The main square, served by the picturesque Victorian pavilion, provides twenty-one Boughton Loam strips. The remainder provide between three to seven strips catering for all age groups.
The school offers a wide range of sports and activities, giving opportunities to participate at a competitive level in rugby, hockey, netball, athletics, badminton, basketball, clay pigeon shooting, cricket, cross-country, fencing, golf, rounders, football, squash, swimming and tennis.
The grounds are regularly used by visiting teams for training, including Worcester Warriors RFC, England Netball and local hockey teams.
Eric Burford is Head Groundsman who, this year, after completing thirty years service, will take retirement. Interestingly, his predecessor, George Harris, also completed thirty years service, as did the head groundsman before him, 'Gibby' Gibson. So, the new boy better be prepared for the long haul!
Back in the early eighties, conditions for the groundstaff were, to say the least, primitive compared to today. "When I started here in 1981, the groundstaff had one shed to house the machinery, tools and equipment, which was pretty basic," says Eric. "We had a set of Lloyds gang mowers, a Leyland tractor with no cab, a few hand tools and a old crank start diesel roller for rolling the cricket pitches."
"There were no dedicated budgets; it was a case of going cap in hand to the Bursar and asking. Now, we have an annual budget which I manage, allocating specific amounts to different facility needs and areas. For example, I sets aside a separate budget for the sports pitches, gardens, contractors and materials. I also attends regular meetings with school heads of department, the bursar and the headmaster. Things have changed a lot in thirty years."
Over the years, Eric has overseen the building of many new sports facilities. "In 1989, a new sand filled Astroturf pitch was put in that was officially opened in 1991. This work gave us the opportunity to relay two new rugby pitches on the newly formed plateau, now known has Middle Charford. These pitches have served the school well, however, in 2007 they needed further work to enhance the drainage, with a local contractor employed to install new secondary drainage slits, recultivated to address surface levels and overseeded."
Since then, the school has invested in a second sand-dressed pitch, installed by Rugby based Bernhard's Sports Surfaces in 2006. This one has a full under-pitch drainage system, geotextile membrane, 300mm stone foundation, and two layers of macadam. In 2010, the school had the original artificial resurfaced. Both pitches are available for use by the local community.
"One of our more recent projects has been the refurbishment of an area of the 1st team cricket outfield, to provide a winter games grass hockey pitch," explains Eric. "In the past, this area of the outfield was regularly used for rugby matches. However, with the demand for hockey at an all time high, I needed to introduce another pitch. We often had problems going from rugby to cricket, as the playing of rugby often cut up the surface. The opportunity to use it as a dedicated grass hockey pitch meant that I could improve the outfield, as the wear and damage is much less severe."
"Obviously, hockey requires almost perfect levels so, last July, we put down 60 tonnes of topdressing to restore levels, and we then overseeded with a finer grass seed mix. The results have been very good."
Eric has eight staff under him to maintain the extensive grounds, five groundsmen and three gardeners. Paul Minett looks after the larger areas, gang mowing and tractor work, including maintaining the artificial pitches. Simon Macaulay looks after all seven cricket squares. Roger Anslow is based at the Prep-School grounds, Scott Devereux and Matt Stoneystreet carry out general grounds duties, assisting with cricket during the summer, and undertaking most of the linemarking duties using laser guided spray jet marking machines.
Tim Stephens is the dedicated mechanic, but also helps out on the grounds when required. All other duties are shared around. During term time each groundsman will work a Saturday rota. "During the summer term we need two groundsmen in on the weekend, due to the amount of cricket being played," says Eric. "We also ask our staff not to take their holidays during the summer term time. It's not ideal, I know, but at such a busy time, losing one member for two weeks has a huge impact. Importantly, the team accept the situation."
Ashley Cooke, Trevor Sayers and Trevor Graham are the school's gardeners, looking after all the formal landscape beds and borders and the extensive lawned areas.
Specialist work is contracted out; tree and hedge works, and sports pitch work such as vertidraining, topdressing, overseeding etc. Eric also hires in specialist equipment as required. For example, rather than having their own cricket rollers, he hires in two every year for the cricket season.
"Over the years, I have invested in new and secondhand machinery to help make us more efficient as a team. Our list of equipment includes a Ransomes 305
5-gang fairway mower, a Ransomes Parkway triple mower, five Kubota G21 ride-on rotary mowers, a Hayter Harrier pedestrian rotary mower, a Groundsman aerator, Amazone flail mower, Agar rotary mower, three Massey Ferguson 550 tractors, a Kubota RTV utility vehicle and a spring tined harrow. We've also got a V brush for use on the astro pitches, and dedicated cricket mowers - a Lloyds Paladin 18", Ransomes Super Bowl 21", Ransomes Mastiff 36" ride-on mower - along with a Sisis AutoRake. It's a far cry from 1981, and the improvements are there for all to see," says Eric.
"We cut the winter sports pitches on a weekly basis and keep them between 50-70mm. The cricket outfields are also cut weekly but, on occasions, can be cut twice depending on growth. We keep the outfields at around 30mm. We tend to use the Ransomes models for cricket and hockey and the Kubota G21 ride-on rotaries for the winter sports pitches."
The school year is divided into three terms, Lent (January- March) - when the grass pitches are set up for rugby and football; Summer (April - July) - when the school focuses on cricket, tennis, athletics and rounders; and Michaelmas (September - December) - which is predominantly set up for rugby.
Between Michaelmas and Lent a quick turnaround of pitches is required so, over the Christmas 'break', Eric and his staff were changing some of the rugby pitches across to football.
Cricket provides Eric with his biggest challenge though, with over seventy fixtures to accommodate. As you might imagine, he is already planning his fixture programme.
In July and August of 2010, eight cricket pitches were relaid with Boughton County loam. The work was carried out by Total Turf Solutions. Over 110 tonnes of loam was used. Each pitch was dug out to a depth of 110mm and infilled with the new loam material, consolidated, levelled and oversown with a 100% ryegrass seed mixture. Whilst on site, Eric and TTS took the opportunity to renovate a number of the other squares using the same loam. "They all performed pretty well last summer," says Eric, "and I'm keen to see what improvement there is this year."
"The condition of the grounds, and how well they are looked after, set the first impressions for visitors to the school. This is always a paramount concern, and I'm fortunate that the team here share that ethos."
"In the thirty years I have been here, we have made huge progress in the way the grounds are maintained and presented, and in the working conditions for the groundstaff. The support of the Bursar and Headmaster has been critical in achieving this," says Eric.
I ask Eric what changes have most impacted on him during his time at Bromsgrove School. "I was very 'hands-on' with the groundstaff back in 1981. I used to write everything down in a diary at the end of the day. Then, along came the computer, emailing and mobile phones, but the biggest change was to have my own grounds budget for materials, contractors and gardens. No more beg, steal or borrow. Also, having a brand new office with up to date IT equipment has been a huge bonus. This allows me to plan the work much better than before!"
"The impact of Health & Safety on the job has been quite noticeable, especially in the last ten years. The school now has a full time Health & Safety officer (John Brookes) who has a major impact on how we deal with things. It has meant a lot more paperwork and, for example, no more putting up or taking down our own sets of rugby posts; contractors have to come in. I have to provide risk assessments for all activities. In the long term, the effect on the school should be that more people will be aware of what is required to keep pupils and members of the public safe when entering the campus."
"All the groundstaff now attend yearly Health & Safety training sessions, but I still say to them, 'just use your common sense, if you think it's wrong, then don't do it!'"
And what about advances in machinery and equipment? "There's been loads," says Eric. "The Ransomes 305 has been a godsend, for example, but if I had to choose one, then it would be the laser line marker, with its tank of ready-mixed paint. When I look back and recollect unloading eighty bags of whiting powder, mixing it up in a wheelbarrow or drum, and pushing it around the campus, today's staff ask me "was that for real?!"
I ask Eric what he intends to do when he retires. "I haven't a clue at the moment, I'm still to talk to the school about it. Whether I can do part time, or even if they want me to stay on. With pensions losing money all the time, I might be forced to stay on!"
I had to have three operations in 2008/9/10 and I was advised not to do any major manual work. So the school kindly asked if I would only do office work and delegate more, which I was extremely grateful for. I do go around the local football and cricket clubs and advise on certain aspects of their grounds. But, when I tell them how much the work is going to cost, they look at me a bit non-plussed!
Chris Edwards is happy to quote the recent successes of the school; "Of course, people are more important than buildings, and brilliant teachers should be able to run a good school in a pig sty, but mercifully it's a point we don't have to prove at Bromsgrove."
"Knock all these wonderful buildings down and the essence remains: we are committed to nurturing moral young people who make a difference for the better. Also, as the constituency's largest employer, we have a duty to community. We never forget that. Unashamedly, we expect all staff and pupils to set sky high aspirations in and out of the classroom."
Eric Burford and his team certainly help foster those aspirations.
Pitchcare would like to wish Eric all the best for the future.
One of Chris Edwards' recent blogs ...
I doubt the Head of Eton received "Holy Cow! It's The Wurzles Christmas Album" as a seasonal gift from one of the parental body. You will recall that "The Wurzles" was deemed second best answer to a recent quiz held on the blog, and the runner up is clearly trying to persuade me that the artistic output of these cider drenched warblers is superior to that of the winning answer - the Hallé Orchestra. I've played the album and I think it fair to say I'll never be the same again. That men can make such music such as this is indeed remarkable. Thank you.
• Just before Christmas there was a quiet celebration in a dark hut. Me and a crowd of hunky dudes. We raised our plastic cups and sipped the warm fizz with some satisfaction. The builders were handing over four of the five new buildings to the School. Now because of the landscaping works (and I'm not talking a few daisies here .. think Great Wall of China), the South end of the campus still looks like the set of War of the Worlds, but amidst the mud and din we have a useable Mary Windsor and Sports Arena. My thanks to the Scary Ladies for ensuring the builders remained cowed and frightened throughout the process.
• Oxbridge results are still coming in but already I've had some dreadful news. For many years I have successfully avoided sending a pupil to my old Oxford college on the grounds that if they went and found out what I'd been up to, I'd have to resign and live on top of a pillar for the rest of my life. Well, one of our pupils sneaked under the radar and has gone and got themselves a place there. A quarter of a century has passed since I left. Is it enough I wonder? Anyway, I've packed a trunk and a false moustache just in case.
• Ignore Robert Peston. The recession is over. How do I know? Well, when I arrived at Bromsgrove I got a fair few letters (usually from people whose children had been refused entry) that began "If I ran my business like you run your School" and proceeded to make clear that Bromsgrove and I were as dysfunctional as News International. Since 2008 I haven't received much in the way of swaggering contempt as I suspect even the Shining Ones have been subdued by recent economic woes. Imagine my delight, then, when on opening the New Year mail I find a letter beginning "If I ran my business like you run your School....". Good times can't be far away. Happy New Year.