An interview with … Martin Nugent, Principal, St. Ignatius Catholic School (2 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 this second part, 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.

What are some weaknesses or areas for improvement for St. Ignatius?

Areas for improvement, now that’s simple. The school’s been running for 50 years. So we need to tighten our systems up.

Schools, I suppose like all organisations, they need to be tight as they grow. That’s making sure that we’ve got good systems in terms of how we recruit, manage and care, how we streamline our finances as well.

Therefore with good finances we can have fabulous surroundings and good buildings. With good finances we can recruit fantastic staff and fill any gaps that we need to.

That’s my job. I’m very much a systems person. Because the school’s quite old, it needs pulling together with its systems a bit more, that’s all.

The inspector’s report noted a division between the primary and the secondary side that should be bridged.

My job is about connecting, but also as an experienced person firstly in education, it’s more than that. It’s about finding the fabulous parts of this school and very carefully piecing them together to make it all one better system, so the school’s more connected with itself in a sense, with the whole way it operates.

It’s pulling together all of the good bits, and that will then drive us into an area of excellence. Because the school can be better.

Can you talk about what you have been doing since your wheels touched down in Cayman in March?

Straightaway it was ripping the finances of the school apart. I was reading what we call the ‘efficiency tables’ on the finances here, making sure that there’s good value for money. For me, the honesty and integrity of an organisation, particularly when it looks after children, is really important.

So it’s really important that we spend money well and in the right places, and efficiently, because we’ve got a duty as stewards of the school to do it well.

And it’s gone great.

We’ve also done a huge amount of recruiting as well, making sure that we’ve got fantastic staff for next year. We’ve had an astonishing round of recruitment. It’s exhausting, but really, we’ve got some fantastic teachers coming in.

I have heard from other schools that recruiting teachers in the past year has been difficult because COVID-19 shut down the pipeline to teachers abroad. And then teachers here began moving between schools.

To be fair, with all schools including this one, COVID sent the whole world upside down, not just St. Ignatius. The whole world, people’s lives, people’s families. The whole world was sent into turmoil and especially very close communities like this one.

Sometimes the closer you are, the more difficult it is, because people are so generally kind to each other. That little bit of turmoil was a challenge, and in many schools you’d be amazed how many teachers are moving, like you said.

I think COVID changed people’s lives, so they wanted to try and make a change to get control, which means they may want to move schools, they may want to change jobs, or whatever they want to do.

Really, that’s dropped lucky for us because the pool, the quality of educators is absolutely terrific. Of course, being a Caribbean island, there are a few ‘cost-benefits’ for teachers coming here, so that does make it easier.

I put one job up, and within 24 hours we had like 30, 40 applicants.

It’s been a huge amount of work because I interview everyone myself. I want to speak to everyone before they come in through the doors of this school.

People will tell you that my interviews are about personality — They wouldn’t be able to get the job if they weren’t qualified. What I’m more interested in is finding out about the person when I’m interviewing them, their qualities, so that then I am confident that they will be a good fit for our children here. That’s more important to me.

At a former employer, we used to fly in overseas candidates before finally offering the job because some people would take one look at Cayman and fall in love, and others would immediately decide it’s not right for them.

Malaysia was terrible for that. Some staff just hated being on an island. They’d either have a great time there, or they’d be gone the next day. “Where is that teacher now?” <laughs> “They got on a plane, they’re gone.”

We’re quite lucky. In this school there are some very well-established teachers. There are more teachers here that have got a 4, 5, 6, 7 year career than in many international schools. That makes quite a big difference.

We have lots of established staff here, and I think that must be quite a good combination of, hopefully their quality of life is good, but also they’ve got that more nurturing, caring feeling for the children. They want to stay with the children that they’re educating, and that’s something quite special.

If you go to the UK, go to the US, into a ‘hometown’, well of course you’ll find the old Maths teacher, the old Science teacher who’s ‘always been there’. That’s very rare in an international setting.

So looking ahead, what plans do you have in store for St. Ignatius?

The major thing is creating the strategic vision for the school. I am working really closely with the Parish Administrator and the Advisory Committee to develop a new strategy for the future of the school.

Now that’s really exciting, because we’re trying to define what we want to be.

We’re a Catholic community and therefore it’s important that the children of the Catholic families come to this school. How do we go about doing that?

It really is exciting, but it is quite a challenge because we’ve got financial limitations. We’ve got limitations in terms of the size and scale of what we want to do, making sure that this school fits the community that has built it in the first place. That’s really important.

There are many international schools that just want to be the ‘best international school’. Just having the best education, being the best at this. That’s not really what we’re talking about here.

We’re actually talking about the vision of being a Christ-centred school at the centre of our community. Hopefully all the other stuff will come along. <laughs>

It’s an interesting vision for this school. When I built other international schools, there were different goals.

You talked about creating a ‘bubble’ in Tunisia to have a school that was like a little part of England. This wouldn’t be the same kind of bubble here.

Not in any sense whatsoever. There’s a potential as well for the current Catholic community to grow. We’re thinking it will grow, and we want to make sure that the school is fit for those families, accessible, and that we’re ready to care for those children, in the best way that we can.

That’s our plans … We’re building a sports hall, too.

(Read a Cayman Compass story on the 2019 groundbreaking for the $5 million sports hall.)

That’s what everyone has been looking forward to. You’ve closed the overflow parking lot where the new building will be. So you’d better get the bulldozers started soon, or there’s going to be a riot.

End of June! We can’t start because the students are taking exams. That’s the only delay. They can’t wait to get digging in the ground.

Of course, we’ve done the work with the architects making sure everything is in place. That’s all done. So they’re ready to dig.

If it wasn’t for exams, we would have diggers, concrete pouring, and everything going on.

Is this a 3-year build?

One.

That’s ambitious here.

We’ll get it done. If I can build a school in Tunisia, I’ll build one here, easy. <laughs>

Are there any misconceptions about the school that you’d like to address?

There were misconceptions because the school went through some turmoil last year. I expected it to be quite a challenge.

And I was wrong, because everyone I’ve found here has been absolutely fantastic. Everyone.

The community had a little bit of an implosion, I think, but each member of the community has been forgiving, repentant, kind and thoughtful about moving forward.

I put it all down to COVID. I really do.

I’ve never met so many really smart people working alongside new colleagues  — but even the members of the parish in the community, and the Home School Association and the Advisory Committee — they’re just people with great integrity and kindness.

That was my misconception.

One thing you’ll find us doing is step-by-step, we’ll be drawing our community together in faith, and that will grow. Through that, we will get continued excellence in education.

It’s a slow process — ‘slow-ish’, because we’re actually quite fast at doing things as well, but I need another year here, before I get the school to a point where I will be happy with it.

Hopefully I’ll be here a long time. <laughs>

What I’m saying, now, is it will take me another year to get the school in a position that I’m really happy about and confident that it’s doing the things that are written on the tin.

There’s a saying in college sports that a new head coach needs a couple of years before they can be judged on their performance, because then they’re ‘playing with their own recruits’. When you step into a leadership role, your organisation isn’t magically where it needs to be. It takes time.

That’s it. But I’m very confident now in the team that we’ve got. I’m really confident in the people that I’m working with on the senior leadership team here. They’ve got the school’s best interests at heart, and that’s vital.

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

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