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 the second part, Clark talked about the school’s strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities the school is able to offer its students.
In this third part, Clark talks about John Gray’s approach to behaviour and discipline, and tailoring education to students who are high-performers and to students with special needs.
In the final instalment (to be published later this week), Clark gives an update on 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.
— You’ve mentioned behaviour issues in the past at John Gray, or at least the perception thereof. What have you done to change that since you’ve arrived, and how do you now deal with serious behaviour issues?
The number of exclusions we’ve had compared to where we were over the last 4 to 5 years has just dramatically gone down. That’s when a kid has to be home from school for behaviour.
That’s not because we’ve gone soft. I’m very clear with parents and the Ministry on what we need to be doing.
If there’s an issue about a drug incident or some kid brought a vape into school, or, rarely it happens, a weapon, or someone brought their fishing knife in from the weekend, which we’ve had a couple of times — They’re out. Non-negotiable.
They know that. That’s how it goes. We’re never going to go soft on anything like that.
But lots of stuff can be done quite proactively and even if kids have even been involved in an assault out in the community or something like that, the most important thing for us is that we maintain a relationship with them.
Something I’ve drilled into staff that was a little bit missing at the start, if I’m honest, was to instill what others would call an unconditional positive regard for their kids.
We’re the adults. So a kid may have had a terrible lesson with you the day before, maybe disappeared off from their learning mentor, or had a bad session. Maybe there’s a backstory behind it. Maybe it’s the kid whose mom had cancer, and is having a crap day.
Their teacher doesn’t need to know about that. All the teacher knows is that they were completely disrupting their whole lesson, and it’s just manifesting in a different way. It doesn’t matter. As a teacher we then let them back in the next lesson and we start again.
We’re fresh, we’re positive, and the relationship is maintained.
Even when we’ve had kids that have been in trouble with the law outside of school. We have kids at Bonaventure Boys Home. We keep those relationships going with them.
They may have been one of the worst-behaving kids you’ve ever seen, but I’ll get in the car with the deputy, we’ll go out to West Bay, and we’ll go and see how they were.
We’ll check what the kids are learning, see how they’re making a difference, so they know that we still care, and that’s really important for me.
Even the kids that have never come back to school, who have been taken out for behaviour. We’ll go and visit them. We’ll still make sure that, yes, they made the mistakes, their behaviour is what was wrong. It doesn’t mean they’re an inherently bad person.
Because again these things come back to eat you in the community. A good amount of those kids then go back and say, “I’m really sorry, sir. I was terrible at school. Is there any chance you can help me, sir. I’ve got myself sorted out, and I’ve got a place at Tony’s Toys and they need a reference.”
You maintain those relationships. Positive relationships for us, we say, underpin everything. Once a teacher has a positive relationship with the kids in their class, then I say the magic happens. You’ve got the parents on board. The teacher’s got a positive relationship. It all happens.
— Can you talk about progress and challenges in academics?
There’s a lot of other strengths. There’s a fair number of challenges. You see the assessments from [Office of Education Standards Director Peter Carpenter] and his team. The OES assessments have been good. I trust him and I trust his system on that.
He operates outside of our Ministry, so he doesn’t have to answer to anybody. He’s as blunt as he needs to be.
There were times the message doesn’t come across as it should be, and it’s hard, but that’s my job as a principal to translate that stuff, to explain what that means.
It’s hard for us while we’ve got kids at such low levels for us to ever get to international standards in some areas like mathematics, but the progress is huge. And the kids have all made great progress in most of their stuff.
I’m very hopeful for our maths results. Remember our kids sat the exams this year, so we had no break through the summer. My staff taught an extra 2 months. The Caribbean exams went from April and May to start of August basically. We went through to mid-August and the kids sat the exams.
They were modified exams. Most of them were on computers and laptops. They were online, but we’ve been trialling those over the past few years. And everyone was like, “Why are you doing that. They’ll never go to that.”
Of course the Caribbean wanted to trial it with us and our technology was in a pretty good place compared to most schools across the Caribbean. So we’d done that in some of the smaller subjects. The kids would sit some of their exams through the laptop and get submitted up that way.
So we were in a good place for that this year. I’m very, very optimistic. I think our maths results would be the best ever this year. The hard bit for me will be I think they would be the best results this year, if COVID hadn’t happened.
What happens with COVID? I don’t know.
People will always look at us and say you’ve got these maths results but they were slightly different exams this year. But I know how hard the kids worked, and I know how hard the staff worked.
I know what a ‘C’ grade kid looks like. I know what an ‘A’ grade kid looks like, and we had a lot more of them this year than we’ve ever had. We had kids that are loving maths. We should have a lot more kids graduating in another year’s time.
— How do you encourage the highest-achieving students?
Another strength of the school, mixing it up a bit, is the Goal Acceleration Programme which is quite controversial here. Some people think we should do it, and some people don’t.
We call it the G-A-P: GAP programme. We are signposting kids as early as Year 8 — they could just be 12 years old — that have the potential to sit exams early and really accelerate their learning.
One of the things with Caymanian parents who put their kids in government schools, one of their fears is they’re not going to be pushed. We addressed that some time ago. These kids get into a programme where even in Year 9, they’ll start preparing for exams.
We won’t put them in if we don’t think they’re ready, mentally ready, ready as an independent learner to take on that work. But we sit a lot of kids in early exams. Stage is more important than age. If they’re ready, then we’ll let them sit those exams even though it causes curriculum issues later on.
If I can get some of these kids their maths grade, if they’re good enough to get the top maths grade in year 10 or even year 9, then we get it. We are fortunate because there are so many kids pre-entered the year before, they’re not waiting for their grades for 2-3 weeks, they’ve already started their courses at UCCI or Prep or Ignatius in A Levels because they’ve got their English and Maths grades at the highest levels in Year 10, and they’ve gone on to do advanced courses in Year 11.
Many of the things we’ve been working on are things that a world-class school would do. I know we’re nowhere near that yet, and we’ve got a long long way to go working on it. But there are aspects where actually we’re already there.
There are teachers that are teaching advanced courses that are A Level equivalent while the kids still up in high school. We did Caribbean Studies last year: Every kid passed.
If the expectation’s higher, then they reach it. I think sometimes in the past the expectations were just not high for every kid.
There’s the concept that you’ve got a mix of kids in a classroom full of people, even if they’re in sets, and somehow you need to pitch somewhere in the middle so that the lower kids can access it, but the higher kids can access it, too. You might give the higher kids some extra work. We don’t do that. It’s almost a bad word. What we want is high expectations for every kid.
— How about on the other end of the scale; how do you support the students who come in needing the most help?
Another thing we’ve done really well, is we’ve identified a real need for kids that didn’t meet the criteria for the special needs board, or they were close to it, or could pass it but weren’t ready for high school. We’ve been praised a lot for this. We have a ‘nurture group’. We modify the curriculum for these kids, and it’s a really caring environment as the name suggests.
There they get additional work with the counselors, additional work with the school psychologists. There’s some art therapy-type stuff. Maybe they need self esteem. Maybe they need intense literacy work.
Some of the kids, you look at them and their work would be on par with maybe a Year 2 or a Year 3 at George Town Primary, nowhere near where they should be.
Instead of us just chuckling them straight into the high school system like we had to do in the past, waiting for them to fail or create behaviour issues because they can’t cope — we look after them.
We have a modified curriculum for them. They’re in one base, more like the primary model. They have several teachers but their base is the same. They still integrate with the other kids. We try to build that social stuff, but they’ve always got a place to come back to that’s a little bit more nurturing.
We graduate kids out of that, and we celebrate that as much as we do the exam results. When the kid’s ready to move from the nurture group into lessons, they’re monitored closely but it’s a great success. Parents have felt really, really happy about that.
People always talk back to the middle school system here. There was a middle school and a high school, and they wish it was still the same, so you haven’t got 11-year-olds in the same campus as a 16-year-old.
The kids in the nurture group, we kind of protect them a little bit. Mentally, if they’re operating like a 5- or 6-year-old at the high school, then it’s completely wrong of us to get up and just throw them out there. So we look after them.
We’ve got about 24, 25 kids this year that are working in year 7 with the nurture group with real good specialist help that you’d have to pay a lot of money for outside. For us it’s worth investing in because that’s going to stop them hopefully from being lost and those self-esteem issues coming up later on.
Hopefully if we invest the time now in getting them to be able to function more effectively, then everything else will click into place.
For some kids it may take 2 years for them to be in there. For some they may still struggle and we may have to find some alternative provisions for them, or maybe a space will open up for them to get help somewhere else. Some kids might go up to Hope Academy or to Lighthouse School, but they’re a lovely group.