Over the coming week The Herald's education correspondent, James McEnaney, reports from Orkney where he finds an education system bound with the fabric of island life. He will speak to the educators, families, community leaders and children and finds both differences and lessons to be learned across the country. Here James looks forward to the coming week's run of stories and gives a flavour of what's to come.

When I took on the role of education writer for The Herald, the overall goal was pretty clear: to help bring more depth, complexity and expertise to coverage of Scottish education.

I was also determined to do more to highlight the good news stories, as well as uncover more of the problems facing teachers, pupils and parents. It’s only been a few months but I think we’ve made a good start. 

But there was always another target in mind, and that was to bring you stories from all across Scotland.

Across our media and political spheres, far too much time is spent staring, with blinkered determination, at the central belt and ignoring the rest of the country.

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At times it seems as if the only things that matter happen between Paisley and Leith, and having lived outside of that little bubble at the start of my teaching career, and know how much (entirely justified) resentment it produces. 

So when I agreed to leave the classroom and become a full-time journalist, I was determined that I’d use my new-found freedom from the tyranny of the timetable.

I always knew that I’d have to get out on the road – or the rails – and put in the miles if I wanted to do this job properly. Indeed, it was one of the major attractions. 

Sometimes a day trip will be enough to research a story, but sometimes you need to give yourself, and your subject, more time.

For an area as complex as education, flying visits often won’t cut it.

Neither will endless Zoom calls that only serve to reinforce, rather than remedy, geographical divides – what does it say about journalistic priorities if some communities are deemed too remote (remote from whom, exactly?) for an actual visit? 

The Herald: OrkneyOrkney

And so I packed a bag, got in my car, and went to Orkney for a week. 

Why Orkney? Well, why not Orkney? 

It was somewhere I had been before, albeit briefly, while travelling for and researching my first book, A Scottish Journey.

On that occasion I was visiting the boyhood home of the poet Edwin Muir, but I heard enough about the schools to pique my interest, and always wanted to come back. 

It was, however, all a bit experimental. I wouldn’t really know how open the council were willing to be until I arrived.

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Maybe nobody would want to talk to this unknown journalist from a Glasgow paper. I couldn’t even be sure I’d be able to gather enough material to justify the time and money being invested.  

As I sat on the ferry to Stromness after a long drive north I was acutely aware that this could all go very wrong, very quickly – and very embarrassingly.

After all, I’d only ever made one other trip like this one, and that was to La Gomera in the Canary Islands, where the circumstances were quite different. 

Every single one of my concerns turned out to be entirely unnecessary: the council were (admirably) accommodating, everyone I spoke to was incredibly open and welcoming, and I ended up having to phone my editor from a sun-soaked beach in Westray to explain why I would be needing a lot more space than I had originally anticipated. 

And that’s how our week-long special on Orcadian education (not, I should stress, Scottish education in Orkney) was born. 

The Herald:

Over the coming days you’ll be able to read more than a dozen pieces covering topics like community development, LGBTQ+ inclusion, sports coaching, boarding arrangements, career moves and more.  

Each is, of course, just a snapshot, because even a whole week isn’t enough to do much more than scratch the surface of somewhere as extraordinary as Orkney.

This isn’t some rigorous, academic analysis of Orcadian education’s strengths and weaknesses, nor is it of any intended as an argument for transplanting their model elsewhere.

Instead, it is a record of my impressions, formed over the space of seven days, and through conversations with dozens of people from inside and outwith the education system there.