In 2015, John Gray High School was one of several Cayman Islands schools highlighted as needing serious improvement following inspection reports. At the time, inspectors rated the school as ‘weak’ overall. Three years later, in its next inspection, it was rated ‘satisfactory’.
But this year – for the first time – John Gray, received a ‘good’ rating from inspectors.
It’s a major achievement for Cayman’s largest school that, for years, has been tackling issues of poor behaviour and less-than-stellar academic results, as well an overall negative perception of the school among the local community.
Behaviour of students, for example, is something that has been an issue for the school over the years, from police being called to deal with fights or drugs, to a recent social media video for which the students involved made a public apology.
In their 2015 report, inspectors highlighted this problem, writing, “Behaviour presents a significant challenge in too many lessons, although the reasons for poor behaviour are often linked to the quality of teaching.”
By this year, the inspectors had many more positive words to say about John Gray, noting that, “Almost all aspects of the school have improved with increased impact, particularly in relation to improvements in students’ attainment and progress in English, mathematics, and science. Leadership and civic understanding are now excellent. Behaviour was much improved with better attendance, less exclusions, and a dramatic fall in the number of major incidents.”
In February 2016, principal Jonathan Clark joined the staff of John Gray, coming from the Passmores Academy in Essex, UK.
Speaking with the Cayman Compass recently, Clark explained that while all schools have to deal with behavioural issues, ultimately he, his leadership team, teachers and students all need to get in line with the school’s “core business – learning”.
“I repeat this story many times. The kids understand that Burger King’s core business is selling burgers, shakes and fries. If you’re not selling burgers, shakes and fries, you’re not aligned with your core business. For us, it is all about learning, it’s not about behaviour. It’s about your attitude towards learning. If your attitude towards learning is not good, then you haven’t got a chance,” he said.
Clark said the credit for the achievements and improvements at the school must be shared with his leadership team and staff, many of whom have been working at the school for years.
Attitude to Learning
One of the first changes made at the school, he said, was to get rid of report cards. “That was controversial at the time,” he admits.
The report cards were replaced with an ‘Attitude to Learning’ score card, with a score of 1 for outstanding, 2 for good, 3 for requiring improvement, and 4 for unacceptable. A chart outlining how the score card works is posted in every classroom.
“It didn’t matter what your academic background was, you could still get the highest grade for attitude to learning… This is more about what makes you an effective learner. What’s going to help us work towards that core business of learning,” he said.
The Attitude to Learning approach isn’t just aimed at lower-ability students or those facing challenges in the classroom.
“It served a really good purpose for students at the top of the school because many of them were coasting,” Clark explained. “They were getting good marks and good for effort and good for behaviour, but they weren’t stretching themselves. They were good for John Gray, but not good for who they were. With that came a real drive for higher expectations, and that, hopefully permeates across the school.”
Since Clark took over as principal, suspensions and expulsions of students have fallen dramatically at the school. He said that’s not due to leniency, but is because of an approach where the behaviour is addressed, while the student is still shown that he or she is a valued member of the school community and the student’s positive relationship with the school and with staff and fellow students is maintained.
“It does not mean we’re going soft on them, but the most important thing is when a child makes a mistake, they know what they’ve done and they know how to do their best to make up for it .. there always has to be a way they can learn from it and make up for it because otherwise you alienate the students further,” he said, adding that even if a child gets in trouble outside school, staff reach out to them and continue to support them.
“The number of days for exclusion has gone down,” Clark said, explaining that in the past it was not uncommon for students to be suspended from school for up to 30 days. “That’s effectively six weeks. That’s a lot for a student to pick up when they come back afterward.
If the student is disaffected or something else going on in their life and then for them to be suspended from school for that period of time, that’s very difficult.”
But he pointed out that the percentage of students getting into difficulties before his arrival was small, in comparison with the size of the school, which is currently attended by 1,100 students.
“The vast majority were doing the right thing every day. We had fantastic staff here. It was not about everything is broken and everything needs fixing. It was a matter of looking at what works best and what works well and building on that,” he said.
Over the years, the school had improved its English results, something that had been a bone of contention in the past, with complaints of school leavers’ literacy rates being lower than expected. But, in more recent years, mathematics proved to be an area where the students were falling down. That was another hurdle the school needed to overcome if it was to achieve a ‘good’ rating.
When Clark took over, efforts were made to ensure the children spent more curriculum hours on maths lessons and that the staffing levels on the mathematics side were strengthened, but not at the expense of English, in which, inspectors said in this year’s report, the majority of students reached levels that were above international standards.
Now, grades in mathematics across the school have improved, with inspectors pointing out that achievement in maths was now at a ‘satisfactory’ level, while progress in maths was ‘good’ due to the “support initiatives” made by the school.
The inspectors noted the school’s most recent internal assessment data showed that students at the end of Key Stage 3 and through Key Stage 4 achieved levels that were in line with curricular standards, and that “there was noticeable improvement in the last sitting of the Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC) examinations”.
At the end of the day, Clark said, with any approach to trying to make improvements at a school, it’s the impact of that approach that matters, and if it’s not making an impact, it’s time to try something else.
“We think of ourselves as a Visible Learning school,” he said. “We spend a lot of time working with the Visible Learning network of schools, a global group.”
Visible Learning is based on the work of education researcher John Hattie who, over 30 years, examined more than 95,000 studies involving 300 million students worldwide. At its most basic level, this approach entails ensuring that teaching and learning are ‘visible’ and that it’s clear what teachers are teaching and students are learning, so that a teacher can evaluate what is working and what isn’t.
“John Hattie has carried out more studies in education than any other researcher and he looks at things like, what actually has an impact. I’m very pro that,” Clark said.
Engagement and leadership
One aspect of the school that inspectors deemed as ‘excellent’ was leadership, with the principal, his team and the students themselves all being praised for their efforts.
Regarding the students, the inspectors noted, “Students readily took on responsibilities and positions of leadership: they were passionate about helping the school excel and were justifiably proud of its successes. Service clubs and similar activities ensured students’ pride in being Caymanian was fostered and students demonstrated their excellent civic and environmental understanding. The school had made good links with the community and all students were expected to provide service. For example, during the COVID-19 lockdown they reached out to support those in need.”
Aliyah Meyers, a former head girl who graduated from the school last year, said in her five years there, she had observed a gradual change to how students became more engaged in both school life and the community.
“I would say over the years, there has been a gradual improvement in the school. … Definitely since Mr. Clark joined the school, there is a lot more school engagement from the students. As a principal, he engages with the students, he’s always trying to get their opinions or thoughts and outlooks on things,” she said.
She pointed out that the students at last year’s graduation had received the highest grades in the school’s history, and records were being broken every year. “You can see that grades are improving over the years,” she said.
On the extracurricular side, students are even more engaged than ever in the local community, she added. “A lot of students were becoming involved in environmental activism, charities, doing voluntary work. We were seeing John Gray being really involved in the community and doing lots of things outside the school,” she said.
Clark said the school for many years has offered an extremely long list of extracurricular activities – from sports, to music, drama, and cookery, to community service and many more – all of which connect the student to the school and to the local community.
“The temptation is you look at a focus like that and say we have to raise the tone of the school and all those things need to go. I think the opposite, really. I feel when a kid is engaged and attached to the school through whatever it is, they tend to be successful and they show that work ethic, like in Robotics Club or playing the cello or steel pan,” he said.
In several of these activities, the students have excelled locally and, sometimes, internationally, which Clark said demonstrates the school’s commitment to high aspirations and expectations, a strong work ethic and the all-important attitude to learning.
Althea Edwards-Boothe, a senior inspector with the Office of Education Standards, says she has been following John Gray’s and other schools’ progress over the years.
Asked if she had observed any elements in particular about John Gray that had enabled the school to move from weak to satisfactory and then to good, she said several factors account for a school’s progress to a good rating. Ironically, one of those is the very fact of previously having an inspection assessment that did not result in a ‘good’ rating.
“Reflection on the areas for development is the primary step in devising strategies and initiatives to drive targeted improvement in students’ outcomes. After two plus years using the OES Inspection framework, school leaders were better positioned to use the information from the previous inspection and their own self-evaluation to devise and implement strategies for improvement,” she wrote in a response to the Compass.
“The inspection report indicates that school leaders had secured buy-in from staff, students and other stakeholders regarding its visible learning strategy which ensured that there was always a focus on impact. The inspection team reported that the school’s vision was embraced by the entire staff who were committed to the wellbeing and achievement of students,” she said.
She added that the inspection report indicated that teaching overall had improved and that “improvement in teaching usually leads to improvement in learning outcomes”.
She said the inspectors had noted an improvement in students’ attitudes to learning. “This suggests that staff had placed appropriate emphasis upon the promotion students’ growth mindset which supported students’ critical thinking and ownership of their learning. Overall, inspectors had noted strengths in areas such as teaching, learning and assessment. Along with focused and strategic leadership, these were some of the common threads that had resulted in the school improving to good overall.”
While two key outcomes – academic achievement and personal development – are the central measures of school effectiveness, according to the OES, Edwards-Boothe said that there really is no single determinant of school success, and that the OES inspection framework delineates six performance standards for school effectiveness.
“A ‘good’ school is generally characterised by strong and insightful leadership, a broad and balanced curriculum, high quality teaching and student engagement in their learning. John Gray’s recent inspection report reflected improvements in these areas,” she said. “In most instances, improvement in the quality of students’ learning and outcomes has to be driven by teachers and those staff members who are directly involved with students. This suggests that leaders had secured buy-in from staff around the strategies for improvement and this offers the best chance of sustainable success.
“School inspection can be a powerful catalyst for improvement but only if leaders see value in the inspection findings and subsequent recommendations. School leaders’ reactions to an inspection may run the gamut from denial to compliance. The inspection report indicated that school leaders at John Gray High School had engaged in critical reflection following the previous inspection and had devised clear and realistic targets for improvements.”