His Excellency James Ernest Williams

Doctor of Laws

Madame Chancellor: James Williams

When Christopher Columbus set out on his second epic voyage of discovery to the New World, he was to become the first European to record the existence of the two tiny islands that we now know as St Kitts and Nevis. Very soon the island Columbus had named San Jorges in 1493 became known after its discoverer as San Cristobel and its sister island became Santa Maria de las Nieves - the use of the Spanish word for snow perhaps prompted by the white cloud that habitually covers the striking Nevis peak. The Spanish never colonised the islands. Rather it was the British who in 1623 chose ‘St Christopher’ – shortened to ‘St Kitts’ during the 18th century - as the first island in the British West Indies to colonise and so became the first Europeans to influence the subsequent development of the islands.

Despite their tiny size –101 square miles in total, the sovereignty of these islands, like so many others in the Caribbean, was hotly disputed between the great colonial powers over subsequent centuries. The colonial era has left a rich residue of French, Spanish and British architecture, language and culture to mingle with the legacy of 200 years of slavery and an emergent Caribbean culture in more recent times to create the unique and vibrant society of the islands today.

Today, can be justly proud of their social and economic success. The islands have the second highest level of educational achievement in the world. This, together with a 98% literary rate and education for all up to 16 makes them a model that many other Caribbean islands aspire to follow. St Kitts and Nevis have a buoyant and growing economy, as well as pioneering social legislation. These achievements following independence in 1983, have made St Kitts and Nevis one of the unsung success stories of the Caribbean – a success story in which our honorary graduand today has played a significant role.

James Williams was born in Diepp-Bay, St Kitts, a fishing village not far from the capital, Basterre. It is a village which is most famous for smuggling spirits and perfume from the nearby French colony of St Barts! Young James and his brother were born into what was already a teaching dynasty. His father, having started as a pupil-teacher on Nevis, rose through the ranks to become Head Teacher, school-inspector and finally Chief Education Officer – a path that his son James was later to follow closely. James’ Mother was also a teacher, combining the responsibilities of motherhood with a career of more than 25 years as a successful primary school teacher.

Having attended the local primary school, James successfully negotiated the 11+ examination to enter the St Kitts and Nevis Grammar School – a Government boys’ school in the British Grammar school style. Here he fell under the influence of a teacher who would prove to be one of the defining influences of his future career. A refugee from the troubles in Chile who had sought safety in St Kitts, Mrs Katzen’s approach to teaching French and Spanish was as innovative as it was formidable! Determined that the boys she taught would gain the ability to use the languages that were so central to their culture, she implemented a regime of ‘lived’ language. No boy was safe from the need to speak to her in the street in French or Spanish and many were welcomed to her musical family home to converse and sing songs in these languages.

Thus, when James gained an undergraduate place at the University of the West Indies in 1969, it was Spanish and French he chose to study and it was these subjects that he taught in his subsequent teaching career. He was also to emulate his Chilean teacher’s inspirational approach to teaching.

On his return from studying in Barbados, James became Head of Modern Languages at Sandy Point High School and in 1979 Headmaster. Such was his success, however, that in 1980 the Minister of Education sent him in to ‘save’ Basterre Junior High School, a school that in our contemporary English parlance would be termed ‘failing’ but in the more robust Caribbean idiom was simply known as ‘Vietnam’ – a ‘terrorist camp’ of disillusioned children whose bad behaviour reflected their sense of hopelessness and failure.

The new headmaster applied his own simple but profound educational philosophy. Value all children; take time to listen and understand them; give them opportunities to do what they can do well in order to build their confidence and self-esteem. He also understood the physical needs of children who had been working on the land since the early hours and had come to school so tired and hungry they could not learn. The new Head Master arranged for them to have a free breakfast. Perhaps most important of all, he understood the importance of relationships as the foundation of learning. From the dispirited staff that he inherited whose inability to cope with discipline problems had led to many subterfuges to hide from the classroom, he chose to work with those who shared his passion for children and had the maturity and sensitivity to be able to build good working relationships with them. The timetable was replaced by a relationship-centred approach centred on a single teacher for each class who would be able to understand each child’s different strengths and needs.

The results were impressive. Many apparent ‘no-hopers’ gained distinctions in their School Certificate Examinations. A child who could barely read and write went on to become a lawyer. The school was transformed.

Madame Chancellor. The cult of the ‘superhero’ teacher is now a familiar theme for films and television. The true story of ‘To Sir With Love’ has been followed by Whoopi Goldberg’s classic - ‘SisterAct’. Only recently we have seen Julie Walters recreate on our television screens the story of inspired leadership that rescued Philip Laurence’s school after his murder. The educational methods of James Williams and other outstanding teachers are well supported by educational research findings as well as validated by their results. We have known for a long time that learners of all ages need to feel engaged and valued, confident and ambitious. Yet the English chief inspector of schools in his report in February this year, deplored the rising levels of indiscipline in our schools and the lack of progress in too many of them. Despite the Government’s best efforts, it seems truancy has not been reduced. We are clearly still not getting something right in this country’s education system. We could clearly learn a great deal from the professional philosophy and inspirational leadership of our honorary graduand.

Such was James William’s success as a Head Teacher that in 1982 his country decided to support his desire to gain further training in educational management and leadership. They sent him to Bristol University where, despite having only two weeks warning and not starting his year’s course until November, he passed with flying colours, as well as taking the opportunity to visit and learn from local Bristol schools. Ironically, it was at the School of Education in Bristol that James met his wife, Valerie – a teacher from the neighbouring Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos!

James Williams subsequent return home saw him promoted in 1992 to Vice-Principal and then Principal of the College of Further Education and in 1995, he was invited to follow in his father’s footsteps to become Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education as well as Deputy Minister of Education, labour and Social Security. Here his educational vision and leadership was again to make a significant impact – this time in system-wide educational reform.

Madame chancellor, although, St Kitts and Nevis inherited the English system of grammar schools, as early as 1967 it had abolished selection at 11 in favour of a system of mixed comprehensive schools. This brave decision to attack a key source of social divisiveness in the face of stiff conservative resistance by the then Minister of Education, was one in which James Williams father had played a key role. Twenty years later, in 1999, his son would play an equally courageous role as Permanent Secretary in the controversial decision to institute a fully comprehensive system of secondary high schools, with all post 16 provision being re-located to the Further Education College.

James Williams’s position at the Ministry also provided him with the opportunity to work on a broader front. Deputising for the Minster allowed him to make his mark nationally and internationally on social welfare issues such as the problem of child labour and AIDS. The diplomatic skills he demonstrated led to him returning once again to the UK in 2001 – four years ago today exactly - but this time as High Commissioner for St Christopher and Nevis. The honour of representing one’s country is a heavy responsibility, providing a real opportunity to make a difference to tourism, to trade and to intercultural understanding. This is a role James Williams relishes as he travels this country helping to develop understanding of the Caribbean culture through, for example, setting up twinning projects between British schools and those in St Kitts and Nevis and seeking to excite youngsters in this country to share his own passion for modern languages.

It remains to be seen whether the experience of studying in British schools to which his twin boys Javal and Jamal are currently being exposed, or of studying at a British University as his daughter, Vivienne is currently doing, will prove the foundation of yet another chapter in the Williams educational dynasty back home in St Kitts and Nevis. We are delighted to welcome all of them and their mother, Valerie – herself currently a teacher here – to this ceremony today.

Madam Chancellor Such a contribution would be enough for most people’s lifetimes but not for James Williams. His many other roles include many years service as a modern languages examiner. He has been active in promoting lifelong learning opportunities; he has played a key role as a returning officer in national elections and a host of other public duties too numerous to mention. This is a picture of a remarkable man whose commitment to education and his passion for helping disadvantaged young people to achieve, aligns closely with our own university commitment to widening participation. It would be nice to think that, as with all our students, James Williams’ time at Bristol helped to contribute to that success and to strengthening our links with a part of the world with which Bristol as a city has so long had links. If we share with other colonial powers responsibility for the turbulent and difficult history of the Caribbean, we also now share with other countries the responsibility to work with the countries of the Caribbean to our mutual benefit. Our honorary graduand today is a shining example of how to build such bridges so that countries can learn form each other. He represents a long tradition of collaboration between the University’s Graduate School of Education and outstanding educators from around the world who come to Bristol to study and then go on to become leaders in their own countries. It is a tradition of which the University is justly proud and we are delighted to have this opportunity of acknowledging the achievements of one of our most distinguished international graduates – particularly since His Excellency was unable to be here in person to receive his Master’s degree.

Madame Chancellor I present to you His Excellency James Ernest Williams, Bachelor of Arts from the University of the West Indies and Master of Education from this University, outstanding educator and servant of his country as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of laws, honoris Causa.


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