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.
Matthew Read is intent on strengthening Prospect Primary School‘s ties to the community and building on its track record as one of government’s top-performing schools. Read is responsible for about 360 students and a staff of about 35 at Prospect Primary, which opened in 2004 and is one of the government’s three International Baccalaureate schools.
In this final instalment of the interview, Read talks about initiatives and strategies taking place, and the defining traits of Prospect Primary.
In the first part of the interview, Read talked about Prospect Primary’s response to the COVID-19 closure, and the challenges and opportunities that arose from virtual learning.
In the second part, Read discussed the return to in-person classes, the school’s strengths and its areas for improvement.
Bio: Read arrived in August 2016 to become Principal of Prospect Primary. He has 20 years of experience as a teacher in London government schools. His most immediate past position was Principal of a government school in West London. He holds a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and several UK teaching qualifications.
— What initiatives or longer-term strategies are taking place at Prospect Primary?
One of the things that we’re doing is we’re working with LIFE to try to get more volunteers in so that we can focus more on early readers in Year 1 and Year 2. You talk about St. Ignatius or Cayman Prep, the model they’ve got where they have 60 or 70 volunteers coming in to hear reading. I’d love to be able to replicate that here, so that we can increase the strength and depth in the teaching of that.
We’re working with the parents through the PTA to make sure they understood how they can best support their own children, in terms of teaching of reading and supporting of maths — upskilling the parents in order to better support the children. We started the process of seeking more volunteers before the close down in order to train more volunteers to come in to support reading, but we want more of that.
One of the big initiatives that we have is our partnership with UCCI. We’re recognised as a school of teacher education, so we work really closely with them to make sure we have practicum students coming in, and our staff receive additional support from the team at UCCI to help mentor the students.
The great thing about that is it’s another pair of hands. If you’ve got the practicum teacher working with you, you can pull out a target group of students while the practicum student is working. It gives you that extra person in the class.
You’re making sure that whatever they’re doing is meeting the standards you want as a class teacher. but at the same time it gives you that little bit of flexibility to target. We’re making sure that we keep that relationship going with UCCI.
We got interrupted — last year we had probably 2 students lined up to go into classes, but obviously we couldn’t do practicums with a closed school, so we couldn’t do it last year.
I’m really pleased we have got 1 student on an experience placement, supporting in Year 1. It’s got to work for both of us, so if they like it here and we feel the potential to add value to what we’re doing, then it might be that they stay and do their main practicum here in the New Year, January onward. We see that type of relationship as being very strong.
We’re also the base for Reading Recovery in primary schools in the Cayman Islands. We developed a practice and training room for Reading Recovery, and this is where people from the Canadian Institute for Reading Recovery come down to do the training of Reading Recovery teachers on the island. That is something that we want to see continue.
There’s a ‘second wave’ to Reading Recovery, where you have Reading Recovery teachers working one-to-one for a period of 20 weeks with target children. We make sure that we follow through with regular checks on those children that have graduated from the programme, and you see children who were on the very edge of falling off the bottom of the class, suddenly they’re easily in the top half of the class. It has unlocked learning for them, so it’s an important aspect of what we do.
Coming from that same programme, and it’s something that we’re goin to work on with the Institute, is training for our assistant teachers. That’s the next step, so that they’re using complementary techniques to Reading Recovery to work with small groups, and to keep building the strength of the teaching of reading in the school. That would also be of use in terms of supporting volunteers once we get that programme up and running
— What are the distinguishing characteristics of Prospect Primary?
For me, it’s being an IB school, and the way that threads right through the DNA of everything we do, with Charmaine Bravo, who is our IB Coordinator.
What we have are highly structured planning sessions every week for the staff. They look at the week they’ve done in review: What has been the impact of the work they’ve done? How are they going to promote metacognitive strategies? How are they going to teach children to learn, rather than just teaching them content, which is a really important aspect of IB.
In those collaborative planning sessions, we have our maths Mr. Law. We also have my Vice Principle there, Mrs. Joylyn Ebanks-King, who is our lead for reading and writing.
They work with the teachers to support the planning of those sessions. It means that we could have those conversions about, “Are children accessing it?” “Are they understanding it?” “What are next steps?” That process of collaborative planning is absolutely key to what we do.
IB also gives us a way of looking at real-world applications for our learning. Sometimes learning can be really quite esoteric in terms of, “Why on earth are we learning this?” One of the things about IB is you’re putting your learning into a real-world concept.
What you’re learning in maths: Wow does that fit across to science? How does that fit across to social studies?
Or, we’re learning to read, and the next thing is comprehension, “How as discerning readers do we make sure the information that we’re reading makes sense?”
Going back to IT and computing, and how that’s used: It’s really easy to take your news from Facebook or the headline of a piece of news without being a more discerning reader, and understanding what the heart of that story is. You can get caught in that 10-word headline and first paragraph, and you think that’s the whole story, but it’s not until you get down to paragraph 2 and read on that you realise, “Oh, there’s more to this.”
You’re starting to see that develop as you go through the school up to our students in Years 5 and 6, in terms of the questions that they ask.
Another big aspect of what we do is the leadership that we develop within the school body. As we went around earlier (Ed. Note: on a tour of the school) you saw the Year 6s going around canvassing for support for their nominations to be prefects within the school.
We have a body of about 25 Year 6 students who are prefects, and they have genuine leadership responsibilities within the school. Once the prefect body is up and running, they help around the school by taking responsibility for all sorts of aspects of the school day. That stands them in good stead for when they get to high school, and in later life, they’ve learned some of those leadership responsibility skills that they need.
We run an after-school training programme with our Year 5s and 6s. Like they do at high school with Boyz2Men, we do that programme that leads into Boyz2Men. Through the year, we see changes in behaviour in terms of them being much more mature and taking responsibility.
One of the things I think we’re lucky to have, is there’s a second hidden strand to education in Cayman. That’s through the work that goes on in Sunday schools and in church groups. Children take responsibility for reading in church, presenting in church, and we reap the benefits of that because we have those children coming in who are very experienced in standing up and presenting.
We direct that into the education that’s going on within the school, but at the same time they have a platform that makes that real for them. We reap the benefit from that.
You can go into any class in the morning. All our school days begin with a short act of devotion, and the children lead those. When we do whole school devotions (We don’t at the moment), the children lead those whole school devotions. The teachers act as a facilitator to help the children do it.
Even in our younger classes, it is the kids that run devotion, and those skills then feed into the students being able to do presentations and projects and take that ownership. That’s been one of of those ‘wow’ factors for me in coming and being a part of the system over here.
There is a whole hidden curriculum in education that’s going on that really benefits the children here. It means the children are articulate, confident, and what we do is we then work on that to focus on it and bring it out in all contexts, not just in the church context.
— Are there any misconceptions in the community about Prospect Primary?
I scratch my head at this point because one of the real strengths of Prospect is the relationship that we have with our community, and particularly with our parents. We have a high level of buy-in from our parents … <Laughs> That’s a blessing and a curse.
One of the great things is it means the parents aren’t afraid to call us out. They’ll come in and say, “I’m worried about this,” and they will work with us to be solution-focussed. It means that we can scotch any misconceptions before they become ingrained or they become ‘myth’ as it were.
<Read’s cellphone rings. He glances at it and makes a note to return the call.>
That’s an example of it. My phone number and my email are at the bottom of every single letter we send out. As a parent, you can come in and you can talk to the head teacher. OK, it might be, “Listen, do you mind giving me 10 or 15 minutes? I’ve got to finish the meeting I’m in, and then I’ve got time for you,” or, “I’ll get back to you,” but they’ve got that direct line.
That same level of communication goes on with my Deputy Principal. It goes on with my IB Coordinator. It goes on with my class teachers.
Parents will come in and say, “This is an issue,” or, “How can I help?” That is a strength of the school, the support that the parents give to a dedicated staff.
I don’t find myself having to fight huge misconceptions in that respect. I think as a community we work really well together.
— Is there anything else you’d like to add, or to highlight?
Just to say, I’ve learnt as much being here as I’ve brought. This has just been the most fantastic experience, coming in and being part of a community, and being welcomed and earning the trust of that community, in terms of working as partners.
That was the big positive, if anything, that came out of COVID. It was cementing or further cementing that partnership.