An interview with … Martin Nugent, Principal, St. Ignatius Catholic School (1 of 2)

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St. Ignatius Catholic School

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.

Martin Nugent recently arrived in the Cayman Islands to take up the post of Principal at St. Ignatius Catholic School. Nugent has responsibility for more than 80 staff members and 700 students, ranging from Nursery to Year 13. Marking the 50th anniversary of its opening in September 1971, St. Ignatius is a private school run by the St. Ignatius Catholic Church, which shares the campus on Walkers Road.

In the first part of this interview, Nugent talks about his international educational background, his initial impressions of Cayman, and his welcome into the St. Ignatius community.

In the second part (to be published next week), he discusses the challenges facing St. Ignatius, plans for the future and last year’s turmoil over school leadership.

Martin Nugent, Principal, St. Ignatius Catholic School

Bio: Originally from the United Kingdom, Nugent has been an educator in the UK, Malaysia, Dubai and Tunisia, and has consulted in other countries as well. He has more than 30 years of experience in education, including at Catholic schools. He moved to Cayman in mid-March 2021.

Can you please tell us about your background?

I’m from Lichfield, which is a beautiful part of England. Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson, who wrote the dictionary, come from there. It’s a beautiful three-spired city.

I was very fortunate to be brought up there and had a very lucky upbringing because we could play out, we could go out to the lake, we could ride our bikes, we could go fishing, we could go camping all the time. We were very lucky. It was very safe, a very nice place to be.

I really enjoyed school. I loved my teachers to bits — and still do, so that I’m still in contact with my teachers from my school in my local hometown. When I go back to my mom and dad, there’s all my friends and all the places that I grew up in, and of course the old teachers are still there.

Again I was a very fortunate person to be schooled well. My teachers were really kind and thought a lot about us.

I then went off to university and eventually became a teacher and did, kind of a very straight route through education. I wanted to improve things, so I became a head of department. I thought I could do the next job better than the other person, so I wanted to do that job. And at each point I did that in order to try to help more people, more children under my care.

That then brought me to a point where I eventually became a headteacher. For that, I did it quite steadily. There was no rush. There was no random. They were all in proper British schools. There was no ‘lucky job’ for me.

I had to work to get to the next position. I had to be qualified. I had to do one thing after the other. That’s how I eventually became the head.

I set up one of the first academies in the UK, which was 4 primary schools, 1 secondary school and 4 Sixth Form colleges. I was part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, so that got me into building schools, basically.

I mean, schools always have building work. There’s always something that has to be built. But that’s what got me into building entire schools, really.

That’s when I got my contracts abroad, where they wanted me to build new schools. They wanted me to build the schools from the ground up, British schools. That’s everything from working with the architects, to building the school, getting the staff, setting a curriculum, and getting everybody in — just to create and establish a proper, good school.

So I did that. I’ve done that, oh, 3 times now. That was in Malaysia, Dubai and Tunisia.

It’s about creating a really good place for children to be in. That’s multifaceted as well. That’s in terms of making sure that everyone who works there feels valued and happy, particularly the teachers because then they look after our kids well.

That’s really what we’re doing here. For me, my job is looking after children. We can show them how to do Maths and Science and other stuff, teach them a bit of Religious Education as well. You know, we can do all that, but it’s about care.

Obviously ‘care’ is an interesting word, because it’s also about ‘discipleship’ or ‘discipline’, whatever we call it. It’s about taking people from one place to another and making sure that they feel safe and valued.

Then they want to learn things. The teachers like teaching and the children like learning when they’re safe and happy.

That’s not an excuse for being mediocre. It’s actually a place of excellence. That’s where we get the best from people.

Where was your last position before coming to Cayman?

In Tunisia, at the British school, which I built from scratch. They had set up a little house with half-a-dozen children, and it’s 500 kids now there.

That involved constructing the building, everything, the whole thing. Again, recruiting the teachers. The whole infrastructure of that was very challenging as well. Tunisia … it’s a difficult country to work in. Nothing’s easy. Everything is a challenge.

It’s a developing country. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, all the time. But you know that was great fun though.

If you could talk to some of my teachers there, they would tell you I created what you could call a ‘bubble’. We created a British school in the middle of nowhere.

They still find it quite intriguing how we managed to do it because of all the rest of the chaos going on around it. An inspector walked into my school and he clapped me on the shoulder and he said, “How did you do this?” He said that.

“Huh? We just come here every day. I just come here every day.”

That’s what he said to me — “How did you do this?” — because all of a sudden he was planted into a little part of England. And that’s not where he was, he was in the middle of Tunisia.

Please talk about your first impressions of Cayman.

Remember, I was locked in quarantine. It was awful. I was crawling up the walls. I hated it.

If it wasn’t for Father Naveen [D’Souza, the Parish Administrator] …

He had to keep phoning me. “Hi Father, how are you doing? What are you doing?” Because it was … it was not good. Two weeks stuck inside 4 walls.

Quarantine was a challenge.

My first impression of the Cayman Islands, to be fair, it’s not that much different from where I’ve been before. I had a house on the beach in Tunisia, so I’m used to looking at the sand and the sea. I mean, it is very beautiful isn’t it? It’s a beautiful place.

Obviously, it’s a Caribbean island so you’ve got sea, sun and sand, and those things are beautiful.

The roads are dangerous here, by the way. I’ve gotten knocked off my bike already. <laughs> It was my own fault, really.

It’s a beautiful place to view, but it’s incredibly small. It’s absolutely tiny.

My other impression is I couldn’t imagine being in a more blessed place than St. Ignatius Parish. It’s just like coming home, and I can’t explain how welcoming, kind and thoughtful the people of this parish have been.

It’s like a celebration being here.

My daily routine is I get up and go to mass every day with Father Naveen or Father Anthony [Fernandes]. That sets my day up for the school of work here.

That’s actually the main impression of the Cayman Islands for me. It’s such a fabulous country parish. There are so many good people trying their very best to help this community.

It’s very well-led and managed as well by the priest. Very well.

I know <laughs> he is my boss. I’m not saying it for that reason. It just is.

It’s very difficult I think to pull a community together like that, and it’s wonderful. It’s really good. Like I was saying, there are so many people — the lady who wants to cut my hair, people who wanted to help me because I had a money transfer problem and immediately gave me as much help as they could. It’s a very healthy and supportive community.

What do you think are the strengths of the school?

The strength of the school is that it’s rooted in its community. The mission of the school is what it says on the tin: It’s ‘St. Ignatius Catholic School’.

It’s very much been built by a group of people that planted themselves here in Cayman and wanted to make sure that their children were well-educated in a good Christian, Catholic environment. That’s evident. It just seeps out of the very fabric of the building.

Another thing is it’s well-funded, so that there are outstanding teachers here because it can afford to get good teachers. There are lots of them. The first thing you notice when you walk around is the quality of the education, which is outstanding.

Being rooted in the community and having high-quality people, it’s a fabulous bonding.

Really what I should have said first is how happy the kids are. The children are so happy. You walk out the door and you’ll get a smile, and you’ll get a handshake. You’ll get a ‘Good morning’ a ‘Good afternoon’ a ‘How are you doing?’ and that’s not the case in all schools. You can’t take it for granted how the ethos of this parish school creates that. It’s an outstanding feature of the school.

And it’s nice. You see the nice fountains and things like that. They’re lovely.  The building’s nice. It’s quite homely. I think the children feel that it’s quite homely here.

That gives the teachers that kind of homely feel and friendly feel. Of course that enables that absolutely excellent to outstanding teaching, which I can see everywhere, in every classroom. It’s a good symbiosis, definitely.

*Disclosure: Cayman Current editor Patrick Brendel has three children attending St. Ignatius Catholic School.*

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