Editor’s Note: In the ‘An interview with …’ series, we speak to education leaders on a range of issues, and publish the discussion in an edited Q+A.
Jonathan Clark is on a mission to transform John Gray High School into a world-class educational institution. With responsibility for 1,100 students and a total staff complement of 140 people, Clark is the principal of the largest school in the Cayman Islands.
In the first part of this interview, Clark discussed the school’s response to the COVID-19 closure and lessons learned that are being implemented to improve the school going forward.
In this second part, Clark talks about the school’s strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities the school is able to offer its students.
In subsequent instalments (to be published over the next week), Clark covers a wide variety of topics, including the school’s approach to behaviour and discipline, tailoring education to high-performers and students with special needs, and progress on construction of the new John Gray campus.
Bio: Clark arrived in Cayman in February 2016, becoming principal of John Gray after accumulating more than two decades of educational experience in the UK and around the world. Previous positions include being Vice Principal at Passmores Academy in Essex and Assistant Principal and Director of Sport at Lammas School in East London. Clark has been seconded to many countries, including Australia, Egypt and Tanzania.
— What are the defining characteristics of John Gray High School? What distinguishes John Gray from, say, Clifton Hunter, or the private schools?
Leadership is a big focus across the school. It’s not my leadership. It’s distributed leadership. It’s teachers having real ownership of the learning in their classroom with the kids.
If I took you around some classrooms in the school, you should be able to sit down with kids and really understand what they’re learning. They should be able to explain it — where they’ve been, where they’re going to, and understanding what the success criteria for that is. That’s been a big thing.
It’s not that we’re just going through a syllabus. “We’ve ticked that box, we’ve ticked that box, algebraic equations, ticked that box.” They should have a deeper understanding than that.
The independence for kids has been a big thing. We talk about leadership with the staff really by saying the number one thing about leadership is leading yourself. Get yourself in order first. Get yourself organised. Don’t be late. Don’t be without your equipment. Make sure you’re someone that someone would want to employ, someone that someone would want to teach.
Then once you’ve developed that for yourself, and you’ve got the work ethic, now you start leading other people.
I watched a maths class yesterday where the teacher was covering different concepts in algebra. Then he just named 4 or 5 leaders in there. They became the teachers in the class. There were kids that were still struggling with some of the misconceptions in what they were doing. So these 4 or 5 students, he stood back, and those 5 were leading the lessons. They’re helping, they’re going in and marking little bits and pieces. There’s work that’s gone into it. It’s just breathtaking to see when you’ve done it right. All of a sudden there’s this collaboration and these kids are being really independent.
— In terms of school strengths, where is John Gray the strongest, whether it’s a subject, an area, or something else?
The staff. Absolutely. They know their subjects. They also deeply care about their kids. They’re interested in making a difference in their lives. We say it collectively on a regular basis. We are making a difference.
The second thing I would say, and what underpins most schools, is literacy. We’ve worked incredibly hard on developing literacy levels in kids, and the primary schools have done that as well.
Our English results are above international standards and have been for several years. We were ahead of the UK last year, ahead of the international standard. That’s also considering we’re part of system, where many of our kids are creamed off to the private schools.
Some kids are still coming in from incredibly low starting points. We do a lot of early intervention with those kids. We’ve been moving along for quite a while with the Level of Literacy Intervention programme, LLI, so we withdraw kids — sometimes it’s controversial, but you know there is no point in a child learning Spanish until they get a basic understanding of English.
We make some brave curriculum decisions. We pull kids out to try to raise their reading age, deliberately, and their literacy levels. And we measure and we celebrate it, as much as when somebody picks up a GCSE or a CSEC exam result.
The special needs coordinator, or the teachers who are working with them, tells me if someone’s gone up 2, 3 reading levels, and they’re in my office and we’re really praising them. And then you start seeing the kid develop out everything else. The English team have done a phenomenal job of that.
— Cayman’s pass rate in English on GCSEs has been around 70% or greater, compared to 60% for the UK. On the other hand, Cayman’s pass rate in maths has been closer to 40%, compared to 60% for the UK. What is John Gray’s biggest weakness?
The biggest weakness at the moment is mathematics. That’s the thing that stops us from being a ‘good’ school. We’re a ‘satisfactory’ school at the moment. We worked hard to get to that grade, with the kids and the levels they are now against international standards, but that’s what stops us from being an outstanding school.
If you look at the history, there were times where it was at 10% in maths. We’ve got a strong maths department. We’ve recruited 5 staff in my tenure.
I like to dig a little bit deeper into data. One of the things we measure is the average point score per kid, and that’s shown a steady increase over the last 3 years. So we’re doing things right.
The new curriculum at the primary schools, I think, will really help get the students to a position where in high school, where they’ve got a chance to get that level 2 qualification in maths, get that C grade.
Sometimes the divide is almost too big. They tend to get it in Year 12, at CIFEC. The John Gray kids go to CIFEC if they missed maths, and they tend to convert it and get it eventually.
Our intervention of late has been not trying just to get the kids to get these level 2 passes, it’s making sure they have a deeper understanding and love of mathematics. Now that may sound pie in the sky. (Or ‘pi’ –Ed.)
Some people, as you say, have a natural affinity for maths, but we work so hard on the growth mindset — the school all needs a positive attitude — that, we generally build this ethos of “I just can’t do it yet.”
You may not be the best mathematician in the world, but you may be somebody that’s going to get by and gets what they need to do as a springboard as it relates to their career.
— Albert Einstein once wrote to a young student who said she was having difficulty in maths class, “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”
Great quote. Yeah and so for us, it’s not we need to test, test, more rigorously teach this, it’s actually the love of maths is what we need to foster early on. So we spend a lot of time with the maths team getting the kids to love maths. Or at least like it.
This is part of the growth mindset we’ve promoted so much in the last four years, but one of the biggest things is “Mistakes are respected and expected” — that’s a phrase that a teacher used yesterday with me in class.
Out of all the subjects, you need to make errors in maths. You need to come out with confidence. You need to think, “I’m going to try to do this, and I’m going to understand why it went wrong.” And not have that fear of failure.
A lot of it comes from the primary schools, without a doubt. The teaching strengths are more literacy-based in primary schools. You know, the teacher’s teaching everything. You’re so reliant on that teacher’s experience.
The new curriculum will aid this with new packages, with new training, will assist getting those kids to that level. So few kids have that deeper understanding or love for maths at the start of primary for sure.
If parents can help and assist, they tend to help and assist with the reading side of things rather than the numeracy side of things. We don’t need parents to be able to do deeper maths to support the kids. We just need them to trust us and help us and back us up in what we do. But if they can, it’s great.
That, for me, that’s the biggest challenge, when you look in from the outside world and how the school is judged. But it’s deeper for me. I say it, and sometimes get in trouble, none of that makes a difference if we haven’t go young people you’re proud of, leaving the school.
We want young people that are leaving the school with some self-leadership, with the capacity and ability to lead others, to be able to give to others, because that’s important in the community.
It’s the community service part of graduation, that some people love or hate. I think the ethos behind, from [Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly] really was a good one. You need to say, “Is this kid prepared to go out and clean up a beach? Are they prepared to teach a Year 7 kid how to read in their free time? Do they understand that concept of service, and what that may lead to.” Employment-wise that may be a strength for you.
We also need to graduate kids that can function. I’ve spoken to quite a lot of people at the Chamber of Commerce because I think that whatever you do in education needs to match up. Sometimes they were saying that our lower-ability kids. some of them were really struggling.
They may have a maths qualifications, but they’re struggling with some of the basic concepts, multiplications, percentages, and very simple stuff. So we spent a lot of time modifying our curriculum so that our lowest-ability kids, they’re not being dragged into an exam when they’re not ready and 80% of it is alien to them.
We’re focussing on what they can do and trying to extend that slowly without making them feel like they’re a complete failure in maths. They may come out and go to the School of Hospitality or they may come out and work for McAlpine in construction, but they’ve got the level of functional maths that are going to make them able to contribute.
That vocational side of things is important to us. There’s always a concept there is no vocational work going on in the high schools. We spend a lot of time on BTEC courses. We have a motor vehicle course that runs very effectively. We have construction on the timetable. We have some fashion and textiles. There’s technical drawing, which is all computer-based now. And CAD is a fascinating course for kids. We have an electronics course.
We do starter course, as an extracurricular activity, in terms of watersports, and then they’ve got a watersports option at CIFEC so they can go into the dive industry. So we’re getting there in regard to the curriculum.
We do need to now to get our Key Stage 3 so our lower school curriculum builds on the new primary school curriculum and bridges what is happening there. That’s in process at the moment. It was knocked back a little bit because of COVID.
The curriculum we’re trying to develop, it’s a world-class curriculum. We’re looking at what other people are doing across the world. Look at the Cayman Islands national curriculum. Look at the UK curriculum. But also look at what potentially is coming up, what the kids need to know, what skills they need.
Retention of facts is one thing, and in some subjects it’s still really important, but at the same time by asking Siri in 10 seconds, you’ve got it. There’s no point in taking 6 weeks to get someone to memorise what in 10 seconds Siri will tell you. There really isn’t.
Instead we need to develop the skills and the complexities and the level of thinking a company like Google might require, or Facebook. Collaborative thinking, trying to get kids to work in groups a lot more in school, multiple solutions to questions.
–John Gray is the largest school in Cayman. What are some opportunities the school is able to offer that may not be available at other schools?
We’re trying to get kids more involved in the STEM side of things. We do a lot of work in robotics, and we’ve had a lot of success in national competitions. The school has a real strength in that area.
We have a flight club in school, which is lovely. The kids learn to fly on simulators in the classroom; it’s a lunchtime club. Then they go off to the Florida Institute of Technology in the summer (We couldn’t this year obviously) and they fly.
They get behind the controls of a plane, and they fly up and down the Eastern Seaboard. They actually get flight time at the helm and it’s incredible. I don’t know any school, anywhere in the world, where you look at that as an extracurricular club.
The kids involved with underwater submersibles went off to Massachusetts, I think it was last year, competing on the global scale. coming in 11th in the world. John Gray High school? In robotics? Underwater technology?
There are so many things here that people just don’t know about. You might get the tip of the iceberg, but it’s all the bits behind the scene that makes those things happen.
You’ve got the traditional stuff. You’ve got the sports. Last year we had 65 extracurricular opportunities for the kids, and they’re all free.
We partner with the YMCA to run the extended after-school programme, and staff also give freely of their time to run other clubs, at lunchtimes or break times. They run from the classic netball, football, basketball, track club, to things like fashion, to things like flight club, and robotics, chess club. Stuff that hopefully caters to every kid.
It’s not just about ticking a box and saying we’ve got it as an offering. It’s because of what that gives to the kids. If the kid is attached to those clubs, they’re attached to the school. They tend to have a special relationship with that teacher.
Once they’re attached to a club, they’re attached to the school. And you then get very few issues with their attitude, very few issues with their behaviour.