Over the coming week Herald education correspondent James McEnaney reports from Orkney where he finds schools and an education system which addresses very specific local needs and challenges but provides a lesson for all Scottish schools. Today, James meets the children and team at St Andrew's Primary and nursery.

The first visit of my trip to Orkney is happening just seven miles from Kirkwall, but it already feels as though I could be on an entirely different island.

I’m closer to the archipelago’s main urban centre than my own home in Kirkintilloch is to Glasgow, but as the fields and farms and scattered settlements roll off in every direction, and the sea rests quietly in the sunshine, that relatively small distance seems to grow ever larger in my mind.

I’ve come here to visit St Andrew’s Primary and nursery, and am barely in the door of the latter before I’ve made a friend – not that I was given much choice about it.

My new pal is the youngest person in the room and has decided that he is going to be showing me around.

Or maybe he has decided I look like a useful toy. It doesn’t really matter either way because I’m certainly not going to argue, and he’s not old enough to speak in sentences.

Read more: Education secretary Jenny Gilruth on earning the trust of teachers

He walks me around, periodically pointing to tiny chairs as an instruction that I sit down. He’s clearly not here to negotiate with me, but I’m so honoured by the whole experience that I don’t even try to explain why a thirty-six year old with a bad back might be better off standing.

The building around us is pretty much brand new, having been opened after the Easter holidays earlier this year.

A quick look on Google Maps confirms that a little over a year ago this was a building site featuring temporary cabins, a big stack of scaffolding, a lot of mud and not much else.

It’s still not quite finished, with some of the outside space to be fully landscaped to allow for even more outdoor activity in these beautiful surroundings, but even inside it feels remarkably bright and open.

Most importantly, it’s immediately clear that this is a place full of very happy children.

The Herald:

In its previous incarnation, the nursery’s operations were limited by simple size constraints, but in this new and vastly improved space, things have changed.

This has benefits for the children that are immediately obvious, but has also allowed them to start thinking about running events bringing in parents and even external agencies.

All of this is a reminder that early years provision is often a vital component of protecting and developing rural and, relative to urban areas, remote communities: one of the easiest ways to make somewhere hostile to family life is to fail to provide high-quality nursery services that people trust and can afford.

For St Andrew’s, there’s a strong sense that their post-Covid reality in this new, purpose-built space is one that offers a range of new opportunities to support the people who live in this part of Orkney.

Read more: The two smiles of education secretary Jenny Gilruth and the job ahead

During my short visit, I even get to see what some of those opportunities look like. I speak to one member of staff who, I think, rather sums up the atmosphere I felt from the moment I arrived here.

Moira had spent years working for the council in an administrative role, but reached a stage where she felt she needed to do something else.

Having requested a transfer, she was offered the chance to move into nursery work, which is something that she tells me she had never considered beforehand.

Obviously, I never saw her tapping away at a keyboard in an admin office, so a full comparison isn’t possible, but something in her voice, and the energy she exudes, tells me that she is far, far happier now than she had been before her career change.

“I just wish I’d done it sooner,” she smiles, before turning her attention back to the kids who have, I think, rather changed her life.  

The Herald:

Back inside I see another worker, Emily, setting up a woodworking space for three of the children. I’m told that she started out on the lowest rung of the early years employment ladder but is now in the process of completing a degree. She has also carried out the training required to take charge of activities like this one.

Safety glasses are put on, a barrier is put in place to stop other kids from running through the area, and then out come the hammers, nails and vices.

They’re not building anything in particular, or being given instructions other than those intended to keep them safe.

There isn’t a list of learning intentions being ticked off. Nobody is worrying about how all of this will help them with standardised tests or ‘three Rs’. 

What matters is that they’re enjoying themselves. They’re playing, and in doing so are also learning, which is exactly as it should be at this age. 

Read more: Glasgow City Parents Group: Giving parents a voice in education

I’d have happily spent days learning about, and from, the young people here, but my schedule is packed. I say goodbye to my new best friend and head next door to see the primary school into which these kids will transition in the coming years.

Whereas the nursery has been built from scratch and attached to the school building through a shared reception area, the primary school is instead being refurbished. Much of the work is already completed, but there is still more to do. 

They have a new gym hall, for example, which comes complete with the fold-away climbing apparatus that I can still remember from my own time at primary school.

It’s big and bright and welcoming – but right now it is also doubling as a dinner hall while that part of the school is put back together again.

The former-and-soon-to-be dinner hall is having underfloor heating installed (because it was always too cold) and has had the ceiling lowered (because it was often too noisy for some pupils) – exactly the sort of relatively small, well-considered changes that could end up having an enormous impact on the lives of some young people, but which generally aren’t flashy enough to attract much, if any, attention.

The Herald:

Unlike in some other settings, the refurb doesn’t appear to have been used as an excuse to ‘rationalise’ spaces.

The dedicated music room remains in place, and I’m told that this is a reflection of the importance of music in Orcadian culture.

The upgraded, upstairs art room would leave some high school teachers jealous. And, crucially, the library and reading area is where it should be: right at the heart of the school. 

They’ve also taken the opportunity to think about how current and future pupils will develop once they move here from the nursery next door.

I visit a primary 1 class that feels a lot like the environment I’ve just left, and then a primary 2 class where many of those early years threads are still visible, but where the overall style of education has subtly shifted.

Read more:  School of hope caring for Scotland's most vulnerable children

As with the nursery, the money that is being spent here feels like it is meant to do more than just spruce up some learning environments and take the edge off the worst of the winter weather.

For families, high-quality services are everything. It’s not just that people won’t move to places where they think their kids will lose out – they actively leave them.

The end result of that process is a slow, lingering death for a whole community as the life is drained from it. But I don’t think that’s what will happen here.