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 the third part, Clark talked 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 this final instalment, Clark talks about limitations of the current school facility and 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.
— What differentiates John Gray High School from other schools? What makes John Gray ‘John Gray’?
I genuinely think our staff go the extra mile for the kids. I think parents quite quickly realise that. Be it getting a phone call from a tutor, be it getting messages at home.
And this is on a very difficult campus for us. There’s a feeling of unity. The kids take real pride. They’re very happy. They’re very proud to be from John Gray now.
I didn’t feel they were at the very start. I felt they were believing the negative stuff that was being said about them, when I first came.
The staff, we have a little phrase called, ‘I am John Gray’. It started off as like a Twitter hashtag. This phrase, this saying, this school ethos thing, ‘I am John Gray, I am John Gray’.
They represent the school in everything they do. The attachment from the staff, the buy-in from the staff is — I’ve never seen a place like it. I genuinely feel they’re very, very committed to the students and to try to make a difference in their lives.
— Can you talk about the new John Gray campus that is under construction next door?
We’re in quite a nice position now where, I’m really happy we managed to push the new school thinking, the new school building.
The opening of the gymnasium went very quickly, and people thought, “Why the gymnasium? What are they doing that for?”
There were several reasons for that. Most of the stuff on the new school site had to go through there anyway because of the generators and the infrastructure, going through the gymnasium. It’s the biggest hurricane shelter on the island, and that needed to be operational as quick as it could.
Three, it allowed a new place for the kids to sit exams. We had horrible, horrible conditions for the kids to sit exams, in multiple, multiple rooms, in an old canteen space.
Where the kids now sit exams, it’s just so much better. It’s world-class.
It’s giving them an idea of a world-class sporting venue. It’s giving them the class that a good high school in the States would have. They put 2,500-3,000 people watching events in there, hosting the Cayman Classic.
We can have our graduation ceremony there. It’s given the kids and our staff the feeling, that ‘maybe that British guy, that’s how it is, he’s right, we can be world-class. Maybe we can be.’
For me the important thing is now we’re seeing the walls go up on the restructured new buildings. Originally the plan was to be like Clifton Hunter, but we did a lot of stakeholder engagement on that, and there were so many bits about the open plan classrooms at Clifton; teacher feedback was so poor.
So we got a redesigned model there, joining, repurposing the existing buildings, joining them with the new building. The staff have all bought into it, parents have had some input, the kids have had some input, too.
It’s been a long time coming. Within the next 2 years we’ll be there. We’ll be occupying some of it toward the end of this year, so it’s really exciting times for the school.
That will allow us to do things. We’ve got a purpose-built robotics space in there. We’ve got, kind of a, curriculum timetable where the buildings are a driver.
What we want to teach has driven the design of the building, and that makes sense, as opposed to what we’ve currently got. We’ve got all these mishmash of buildings.
I don’t know the last time you were on the site. It’s a rabbit warren. For health and safety it’s hard to keep eyes on the kids all the time.
Teaching conditions are really poor. All the reports have said this, but we have got a multimillion dollar solution to it that’s coming pretty soon.
We’re remodelling some of the things in the current model. A long time ago it was more about dividing all the schools into 4 academy areas, at the school.
Now we’re going back far more to a kind of model that’s about the core business of learning, rather than behaviour management. We don’t need that any more.
We’ll have the English and Science wings attached to the Technology Block, so we’ve literally got a STEM wing.
We’ll have our English department together. I can put my head of English there. I can put my newly qualified teacher there. And they can all work as a team.
They can manage behaviour. They can manage learning, bounce kids up every now and then, working together as opposed to the way it is at the moment, where it’s all over the place.
Science grades, in teaching, are very dependent on the Maths grades, as you’d expect. We’ll be able to teach Science in a much, much better way.
At the moment we have science labs scattered across 4 areas on the campus. It’s a difficult campus, with ups and downs and gravel. So as you’d imagine, to move and share resources is now impossible. Now we will have them together with a common prep room. We will have some collaborative teaching spaces.
You’ve got the best of Clifton Hunter and the concept of Clifton Hunter, where you can do classes together, you could teach an open plan. But actually we’ve got fixed classrooms with walls and defined teaching spaces, with the option of taking kids out to some open plan spaces.
I don’t know if you’ve been to the KPMG building [in Cricket Square] at all, but they have these kind of combined stairs where you can actually sit there and you can have a lecture there. We’ve got an area like that.
So, why? Well, we actually need these. These spaces are really good. It’s almost a lectures space. You have some stairs and you move from one floor to the other, but actually in the middle of it, can be a sit-down place.
If you look at the way university students sit and work these days, or how they socialise, they tend to be kind of ‘knees up sitting on a bench’, maybe a coffee there, clipboard there or book there they’re reading. It’s not conventional sitting in a classroom. We’ll have these sort of social spaces there.
It’s hard to say it’s future-proof because you can never tell, but we’ve put so much into it and I’ve had so much input. I’m really grateful to work quite well with the Ministry of Education and the facilities team to design a really functional school.
The building will be absolutely world-class, but it will allow us to then deliver a world-class curriculum. At the moment our curriculum and our timetable are obviously limited a bit by the size of the rooms, where we’ve got space.
I’ve got rooms where you can only put 10 students. I’ve got some spaces you can put 40 students. The issues that causes with timetables and consistency across the boards …
The transitional time between lessons is poor. People say our kids are late for lessons. But if you have to walk nearly a half a mile to get from one side to the other side, be it in the heat or the pouring rain this time of year — the campus floods. Kids are taking their socks off and then having to dry off in an A/C-chilled room on the other side.
One of the concepts there is to minimise transition time. because if you minimise transition time you maximise learning time.
— And transition times create opportunities for behavioural issues to arise.
We minimise transition, but everything comes out of a central point. We’ve got a library at the centre of the new school.
The library facilities are pretty poor at the moment, but we’ll have a nice central library there. Now some people say, “Well, a library is a little bit out of fashion.” There’ll be some tech in there and we’ll have it around the outside, but it’s a school and it’s going to make a real statement. It looks quite flashy but it’s a really important statement that a library is a learning hub.