When Cayman Parent was granted a unique insight into three of our Islands’ schools, we wanted to uncover what it takes to lead a school to success, how to prepare a generation of children for their futures and, of course, find out the state of Cayman’s education system.
Our three principals – one determined to succeed despite facing a unique circumstance, the second established in a government school 15 years in the making; and the third taking on the challenge of a brand new, private primary school – were open and honest, revealing how they and their school succeed and how we can all help in the education of our young ones.
Though there are dividing factors between each principal – private and government, primary and high school – there was no rivalry nor competition, no personal glory and, most importantly, no disparity in ambition for each of their schools. It was simply a meeting of minds in which a shared vision to help propel the country’s next generation to success was celebrated.
Dr. Villence Buchanan of Clifton Hunter High School, Jon Clark of John Gray High School and Stephen Coles of Island Primary, shared beliefs, values and visions for the future of Cayman’s education system.
Dr. Villence Buchanan
Principal of Clifton Hunter High School
Upon meeting the principal of Clifton Hunter High School, Dr. Villence Buchanan exuded warmth and kindliness. Friendly, full of smiles and obviously very well educated, you can imagine she is a welcomed presence around the school corridors. Born in Jamaica, Dr. Villence moved to the UK at just six years old and spent her formative years living in North London. She then went on to study Biochemistry and trained as a Science teacher. During her teaching career, Dr. Villence has worked as a teacher in the UK, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
Sitting down with Dr. Villence, talk quickly turned to the role of parents in the education of their young ones. This principal of Clifton Hunter is a firm believer that parental involvement in a child’s education is a critical factor in their academic success, and during her eight years spent at the school, she has focused on strengthening these home-school links for this very reason. “I believe that my greatest contribution to the school”, Dr. Villence thinks, “is empowering parents to partner with teachers to provide the best outcome for students.” Parents have an indispensable role to play in a child’s academic development and their academic success is a collaborative effort involving the child, the teacher and the parent. Those parents who take an active role in the education of their child help set them up for success in and out of the classroom. Studies have shown a significant variance in a student's academic performance based on the level of engagement exhibited by their parents in their education. Specifically, students whose parents are actively involved in their academic life tend to fare better in their studies, exhibit a higher attendance record and display more significant interest in their academic pursuits. Conversely, students whose parents are not involved in their education may need help with their academic performance, showcase a higher rate of absenteeism and potentially lack the motivation to learn.
A Dedicated Workforce
But it's not just parental involvement that Dr. Villence attributes to the success of her students. Of course, a principal is nothing without their team of inspiring and committed teachers, and we could not discuss the success of a school without touching on the role of Cayman’s teaching staff.
Clifton Hunter is well-known for its dedicated teachers who offer their spare time to help students reach their academic potential. It’s common to find additional lessons taking place after school and during school holidays in order to make this happen. Student success is a priority to all staff at Clifton Hunter, and teachers go above and beyond to ensure they continue to surpass international standards where students’ achievement is concerned. “We must be able to empower teachers and cultivate leadership skills in them as well as in students”, Dr. Villence attests.
An Inclusive Learning Environment
When it comes to leadership, Clifton Hunter’s principal believes that having a vision, together with a clear plan of how this vision can be achieved, and understanding the significance of building a supportive community within the school environment are all of the utmost importance. “We are passionate about our work”, says Dr. Villence, “and we strive to create a collaborative, inclusive learning environment.” Aspiring to empower her school community to have a voice, Dr. Villence endeavours to communicate a shared vision of trust in order to achieve academic success for all students across the school.
With this in mind, if a child is not learning, staff will come together to investigate whether the child is ‘at risk’ in any way and intervene to help get the student back on track. While delivering lessons, teachers are encouraged to constantly assess the learning of students in the classroom by seeking feedback from students, using questioning techniques, games and group activities. A simple aid to student learning has been the free school meals programme recently introduced into all government schools. “It has been a blessing in ensuring no child attends school hungry”, praises Dr. Villence.
For students with Special Educational Needs (SEN), there are a variety of services available to help bridge the gaps and ensure students can access the curriculum despite their additional support needs. Some programmes at Clifton Hunter are run by specialists within the staff body and others are provided externally by assigned specialists, such as Speech-Language Therapists and Occupational Therapists. Currently, the school is working towards being more inclusive by providing as many enriching curriculum opportunities as possible, with measures such as widening the offering of alternative pathways and enabling more engagement with local businesses and the wider community to support these alternative routes. Dr. Villence and her school is continually working to remove any barriers which may deter students from reaching their potential and achieving academic success.
Finding out more about Clifton Hunter's dedicated workforce, leadership style and academic inclusivity was essential in learning more about the school. Yet, our conversation with Dr. Villence could not pass by without touching on the history of the school building.
It’s no secret that Cayman’s only open-plan concept school poses unique challenges for traditional teaching and learning. The noise levels can be distracting, especially for students with SEN, and not particularly conducive to traditional learning. However, all teachers, along with their principal, work collaboratively to plan and deliver lessons that are minimally disruptive to neighbouring classes. When appropriate, teaching is taken outdoors which, of course, has benefits of its own and allows for a different kind of learning. The one-to-one laptop initiative introduced by the Cayman Islands Government allows for greater use of technology in planning and delivering lessons which also helps to reduce learning distractions. So, while the building at Clifton Hunter is unique in its design which produces less than ideal results, it’s the commitment and determination of the school, its staff and its students, alongside government help, that is helping drive alternative methods of learning, which of course have their own value.
As part of the next stage of building, Clifton Hunter hopes to have a canteen built so that students can enjoy their school meals in a designated area. Also, the school hopes to include a STEM block so they can extend the activities currently on offer. What’s more, as the proud winners of the 2023 Interschool Sports Competition, Clifton Hunter has submitted a proposal to have a running track installed on school grounds. This will enable local athletes living in the Eastern Districts to train safely in a convenient location. For all these reasons, despite the drawbacks relating to architectural flaws, these upcoming changes demonstrate the unwavering commitment of the Clifton Hunter team which cannot go unnoticed.
“My three-year plan for Clifton Hunter is to maintain high standards of progress and achievement”, explains Dr. Villence. In addition to their accelerated and TVET progression pathways, Dr. Villence also plans to introduce a new REACH (Resilience, Empowerment, Achievement and Continuous Habits) programme, designed to empower students by helping them develop the skills necessary to cope with life’s challenges. It will also encourage them to be productive members of society and life-long learners. Dr. Villence also hopes to improve morale by forging closer links with the communities of East End, North Side and Bodden Town, continuing to strengthen home-school links to build a safer school community and promote inclusion. Clifton Hunter is up and coming and that is something to celebrate and be proud of.
Principal of John Gray High School
Walking the corridors of the new John Gray High School alongside principal Jon Clark was much like re-visiting the street you grew up on that’s full of familiar faces. There were lots of smiles, waves of hello and promises of dropping in later to see how things are going. Each encounter, whether student or staff, gave a sense of genuine familiarity and warmth as time was made for each conversation, however brief. It was an indicator of what was to follow in our conversation. “Firstly, I believe I have the best job in the world”, Jon confesses, “I truly love and appreciate the opportunity to grow and nurture our young people and lead them at John Gray.” This appreciation and nurturing became obvious as we found out more about this government school head.
Jon has been at John Gray for over seven years. Previously, Jon worked at two schools in the UK, both in areas of high deprivation and each with their own range of challenges. Jon also spent time working on different projects in various countries, including Tanzania, Egypt and Australia. Impressively, he represented England in basketball, and later England and Great Britain junior teams as a coach, which took him across Europe and the US. These sporting experiences prepared him for his role at John Gray, always observing and learning what excellence and teamwork look like at the highest level and directly transferring that to his career in education. “I was the first person in my family to attend university and I truly understand how a positive work ethic, love, parental support and making the most out of education can be life changing.” And his 30-year career in education is a testament to this.
A Brand New School
The new John Gray High School officially opened in March 2023, with Jon at the helm the entire way. Students, staff, parents and the community were all listened to in the redeveloped design and it’s a project that the school and wider community should rightly be proud of. Although the school is made up of fixed classrooms, as opposed to being open-plan like Clifton Hunter, John Gray also benefits from collaborative spaces, allowing for high visibility in all learning spaces, senior staff support and easy collaboration between departments. The school has extensive TVET facilities, a STEM wing, purpose-built steel pan drum room and an outstanding performance hall with retractable bleachers; all catering to a school that is working to ensure there are no barriers to the learning of their students. This collaborative build was only possible with the great support of Government and the Ministry of Education, past and present, alongside a dedicated design team drawing on the strengths and weaknesses of Cayman’s existing schools. Among the many facilities, John Gray has an Inclusion Hub, which is an oasis of calm for SEN students. Proudly, Jon tells us how most SEN students at the school are fully integrated within mainstream classes, and those who need additional help can receive it from their Learning Support Class (LSC) and Nurture Group. Jon emphasises the importance of magnifying the strengths, or ‘superpowers’, of his SEN students and using these to develop strategies and awareness of how students learn best.
Removing Barriers to Learning
“Mindset”, Jon firmly replies when asked what the most critical aspect of successful learning is; “students believing they can learn and knowing that we all care about them and want the best from them.” In addition to mindset, Jon echoes Dr. Villence on the significance of removing any barriers to learning so that all students, regardless of their prior attainment, home situation, SEN etc., have a chance. John Gray also focuses on developing positive attitudes to learning (ATL) which are taught in Year 7 and are graded on every school report. Students with a poor ATL are supported with either learning assistance for subject-specific weaknesses, or more targeted intervention if the weaknesses are in multiple subjects. To achieve a high ATL grade, students must be more than quietly compliant. They must be asking questions of the teacher, thinking critically, able to work independently, lead or even teach others in class. It is these high expectations of students that have helped John Gray to achieve a ‘Good’ rating in the OES school inspection reporting system. “We have a relentless focus on school improvement”, says Jon, “not for the inspectorate, but because our young people and community deserve an excellent education.”
A Powerful Team
When discussing teaching, Jon is clear: qualifications and experience are important, but having a teacher who has an impact and a willingness to be a life-long learner themself is just as significant. “I must be convinced that any new teacher will care about our young people and light up the classroom to engage and enthuse our learners”, Jon affirms. Again, like Clifton Hunter, John Gray values the importance of cultivating a community of staff to better the success of students. Jon discusses Collective Teacher Efficiency (CTE), a shared belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students which is strongly correlated with student achievement. To build a positive school culture, one must look to everyone. Making the school a place where staff and students feel like a second family in order to survive the ups and downs. And all of the recent achievements and improvements at John Gray would not have been possible without the teamwork of the school’s staff. “We call it Team John Gray and I can’t thank our team enough”, says Jon. “They care so deeply about our young people and provide countless opportunities for students to achieve and develop as successful young people.”
Conversely, Jon reminds us that children learn more from their parents long after they have forgotten their high school lessons. Much like Dr. Villence, Jon stresses that parents are the primary educators in a child’s life, and when parents are engaged, the risk of their children not reaching their potential is reduced. Of course, it’s understandable that some parents simply don’t know how they can help. At John Gray, things are being made more transparent and accessible to encourage parents to work with the school, building trust, changing mindsets and being honest. By doing so, teachers, parents and students can become a powerful team.
When it comes to leadership style, Jon Clark regards distributed leadership among teachers as highly important; “getting everyone in the right seat aboard the bus to educational success in order to feel the greatest impact”, Jon explains. There is a relentless focus on self-improvement, noting that the key to John Gray raising the academic bar is their desired improvement in Maths which would also help transform their OES ‘Good’ rating into ‘Excellent’, a goal which Jon is pursuing for John Gray and the students alike. “I believe all children have leadership potential. At John Gray, we ask students to first lead themselves, and then when ready, lead others”, Jon explains.
Going forward, Jon Clark of John Gray has his sights set on an OES rating of ‘Excellent’, a school the community is proud of, and students keeping their options open by achieving high grades in Maths, English and other subjects. Once the new school and sports facilities are complete, including two 5G football pitches, outdoor basketball courts and multi-use games areas, there are hopes of extending courses into the community, hosting more international events and gaining international recognition. Above all, Jon hopes for staff and students to continue to be driven to make a difference and change lives.
Principal of Island Primary
“What can I say, I’m a primary school teacher”, laughs Stephen Coles when questioned on his brightly-coloured, trademark tie. After spending much of his 23-year career in the public school system – three years in Charleston, South Carolina and 20 years here in Cayman, as Deputy Principal at Sir John A. Cumber Primary School and then Cayman Prep and High School – he’s now starting a new journey as principal in a brand new primary school called Island Primary. And here, Stephen assured us, his jazzy ties (and matching socks!) are a huge hit.
As we chatted about his new role as headteacher, Stephen recalls how he never aspired to be a school leader until a few years ago, when his purpose in education shifted. At the time, a teacher himself, Stephen then sought an opportunity to be able to make a difference in the lives of not only his students but also his colleagues, “because through better supporting educators, we can better support learners”, Stephen explains, mirroring Jon Clark’s sentiments. Thus, his role as Deputy Principal, and now as Headteacher, were an obvious next step.
Developing a Sense of Community
As a new primary school, Island Primary has recently gathered their team, so we asked Stephen to tell us about the team they’ve recruited. “The recurring theme throughout”, Stephen explains, “was to identify ways in which we can effectively and authentically develop a sense of community.” Being a new school, Island Primary placed a premium on people who identify not only with the school’s purpose and vision, but with the energy and enthusiasm to take on an extremely meaningful and rewarding challenge in establishing a new school community; an environment where people feel valued, are able to grow and feel supported in doing so, where staff’s needs and ideas are listened to and acted upon. All key components in instilling a sense of self-efficiency and morale, it's clear that, like Dr. Villence and Jon Clark, Stephen and his school have a real focus on creating and sustaining an environment that becomes an extension of a family household.
Remaining Engaged in Learning
Again like Dr. Villence and Jon Clark, Stephen continued to stress the significance of parents investing the time in getting to know their child’s school and teacher, and working with the school to develop a partnership where parents seek to understand and be understood. This relationship between student, teacher and parent is what a positive schooling experience relies on, and Stephen explains how it always comes back to relationships and “developing a level of trust through two-way, honest and respectful communication.” Moreover, Stephen highlights the importance of parents remaining engaged in their child’s business of learning; asking questions, and knowing when not
to, making observations and noticing moments of learning are key to supporting learners of all ages.
A Dynamic Learning Community
In 2021, Island Primary was just a plot of land and an idea, until construction began where George Town meets South Sound. The vision was to build a physical structure that embodied the school’s core beliefs and purpose. In doing so, the school became a physical expression of community. The building then opened to children in September 2023.
Centring on an internal courtyard, the school is a hive of collaboration, with shared breakout spaces, like John Gray, purposefully built between classrooms for connectedness and small group work. There’s a sensory room for students (and staff!), a designated ‘office equipment-free zone’ for teachers who desire a quiet area, reinforcing Stephen’s focus on caring for teachers to better care for learners. The school library, affectionately known as ‘The Hub’, is deliberately located at the front of the school, welcoming students, staff, parents and visitors into the school’s community of learners. Not just a threshold to the school, this entrance helps link learning across both curricula and classes, and helps cultivate curiosity among all who enter. The school also affords expansive outdoor areas, including a mile-long nature walkway, which serves as a health and wellness resource as well as allowing for learning to be taken outdoors, under Cayman’s blue skies and among its treasured natural environment. All these aspects, as Stephen explains, “help provide a dynamic learning community committed to actively engaging with, and contributing to, an ever-changing and diverse local and global society.”
Nurturing a Love of Learning
When it comes to children, whom, of course, schooling all leads back to, Stephen emphasises the importance of actively engaging students in the learning, making it relevant in the lives of those putting the effort into the learning process. The curriculum at Island Primary focuses on four international concepts: communication, conservation, culture and conflict. Discrete English and Maths lessons are taught daily to develop an appreciation for each subject, as well as helping to build the confidence to then use the acquired knowledge and skills independently as tools for further learning. The overarching aim of the school’s curriculum is to nurture a love and ownership of learning, where students are equipped to successfully access and share an educational experience and grow skills such as resiliency, collaboration, curiosity and innovation for lifelong learning.
To Stephen, it is important that his leadership creates an environment in which teachers have the freedom to try something new, to collaborate with others and encourage them to assume increased control over teaching, much like at both our government schools. No matter whether you’re a principal, a teacher, a staff member, a parent or even a student, it’s important to acknowledge and embrace difference. “There’s a tendency to focus on trying to shape children to fit what’s being learned”, Stephen remarks, “when it’s more beneficial, and more likely to make sense, if we look at ways of designing the curriculum so it resonates with children.” This leans into the school’s facilities for children with SEN. “We made the decisions from the outset to make our provision for additional learning support needs a priority”, Stephen explains. With this in mind, the school has two Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCos) who work in tandem, with one dedicated to infants and one to juniors.
Aspirations for the Future
Having only opened its doors in September 2023, Island Primary is still finding its feet. We asked Stephen where he hopes his school will be in three years’ time. “I really hope that our understanding of who we are, and what we are about as individuals and a collective, really reflects our place within the wider community.” Stephen also hopes to be developing leaders (both adults and children) who feel fulfilled in their learning and driven to do something with it. “If we’ve established strong links within the community, then we will have been working successfully towards achieving our vision.”
Three Principals, One Shared Vision
When these three leaders came together there was a true sense of camaraderie. All three hoped for more collaboration between schools across our three Islands and longed for a rejection of education being used as a political football. Instead, they called for focus on cross-party agreement in educational priorities that Cayman’s community deserves.
These three principals are separated by their diverse backgrounds, their teaching of different ages and overseeing of different types of school. Yet, they are united by their love and respect for their team of teachers, their focus on driving student success and the great pride they take in their school community. However, the overarching message from all three headteachers – whether primary or secondary, private or government, new or old buildings – is the significance of parental involvement in the academic careers of Cayman’s children. This thread weaved its way through all three conversations and is clearly an integral part in the fabric of successful learning. Dr. Villence Buchanan, Jon Clark and Stephen Coles each urge parents to team up with teachers and, together with students, unite to work in tandem and help propel the next generation of Caymanians to achieve their full potential and more.
Photography: Rebecca Davidson