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If it takes a village to raise a child, imagine what young people can do with an island at their backs.

As Scotland considers the results of this year’s School League Tables, many critics are hoping that the system for scoring schools will change.

Orkney Islands Council’s Corporate Director of Education, Leisure and Housing, James Wylie, argues that the tables paint a misleading picture of schools.

“League tables which emphasise one kind of qualification are not helpful.

“They can put pressure on schools to focus on that particular attainment, rather than seeking to offer what is most beneficial to learners in the context of the school.”

Orkney’s education system, which Mr Wylie oversees, offers an alternative way to structure and evaluate education that focuses less on exam results and more on positive destinations, long-term success, and community support.

READ MORE: Scotland's school exams programme is about to undergo change

For a look at how the programme works, we need to take a short hop across the Pentland Firth.

Success is about more than one number

This week, The Herald’s School League Tables ranked Scotland’s schools according to the percentage of their leavers that earned five or more awards at Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Level 6.

These are mostly Higher courses, with some exceptions.

Mr Wylie is one of many who argues that rankings based on exam results create unhelpful incentives for schools.

In addition to pressuring schools to focus on only one type of success – preparation for university – the league tables also undervalue the different types of education that students need, he said.

“Scottish Education offers young people a wide range of courses and study types, and traditional Highers are only one of the options available.

“A league table on a single measure fails to represent the richness of that offer.”

Instead of focusing only on exams, Orkney educators pay close attention to positive destinations – the amount of students who move on to careers, training, volunteering or further education – take precedence over exam scores.

In 2022, the islands reported that 97% of pupils moved on to a positive destination.

That’s 3.5%  above the national rate and among the highest rates in Scotland.

Mr Wylie attributed this success to the council’s wrap-around services and close-knit partnerships with local charities.

Council, community and the path to success

Because education in Orkney falls under a wide council umbrella which also includes a range of other services, and because the council has a hand in education from nursery through to higher education, educators and social workers can engage with young people early in their lives and follow them through their academic careers into adulthood.

Mr Wylie credited the council’s Community Learning, Development and Employability (CLDE) for building support programmes for students and families.

Each term, the CLDE team meet with Orkney’s two large secondary schools, Kirkwall Grammar School and Stromness Academy, and with junior high schools on an as-needed basis to identify students in need of more support.

This cooperation recently resulted in the development of an eight-week programme to support young people seen as at risk of not moving on to a positive destination after school.

Through this course, young people can learn important lifeskills from finance to nutrition to hygiene.

Meanwhile, partnerships with charities such as WhoCares Scotland, Orkney Blide Trust and Homestart help families prepare young people for work by identifying opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The world is changing: schools need to keep up

The Scottish government knows that the way schools are measured needs to change.

This week, it will release a report in response to the Hayward Review, an extensive set of proposals for reshaping Scotland’s qualifications system.

At the heart of the proposed changes: a reduction in the number of national exams students must sit.

The knock-on effect could mean less attention paid to Highers and more focus on employable skills, problem-solving and adaptability.

Mr Wylie said that this would mark a shift in the right direction.

“In a rapidly changing world, transferable skills such as problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking and resilience are as important as subject-related knowledge.

“Examinations assess a particular kind of skill, but there are many skills which are better suited to different methods of assessment.”

There will always be careers where the ability to do well on exams represents the necessary skillset.

“However, there are at least as many futures where good exam scores do not demonstrate suitability or potential,” Mr Wylie added.

Support shouldn’t end at the school gate

Mr Wylie believes Orkney is uniquely placed to take the long view when it comes to developing young people.

To truly understand how the education system is serving young people, he said that we should track how students adjust to life after school.

“In this way, greater value could be placed on ensuring ‘success’ not just in school, and at the end of school, but also, for example, a decade later and then again when people reach 30 or 40.”

Rather than simply registering that a student has moved directly into a career or further education, researchers and educators could also ask whether students are happy and how long they continued along their chosen course.

“The very nature of our community schools means that children, young people and families can be part of a wider community of support –a significant plus for a successful ‘now’ as well as a successful future,” Mr. Wylie said.

But while Orkney’s framework can provide examples of best practice, Mr Wylie said that there’s no escaping the hard truth that education isn’t one-size-fits-all.

What works in the islands may not be feasible in Glasgow. Ullapool isn’t Inverness.

In the end, it’s up to schools, villages, islands and cities to look critically at what success looks like in their communities.

See how your child's school ranked in The Herald's league tables