On the second day of our special on Orcadian education, James McEnaney recounts his experience at Stromness Academy.

When Paul Barber arrives I don’t need an introduction to know that he is person I’m waiting for – something about the suit trousers and deep-blue waistcoat just gives it away.

Paul is very much new to the role of headteacher at Stromness Academy and is very open about the fact that he had never expected to find himself in such a position.

In fact, not so long ago, it looked like he might be calling time on his teaching career altogether.

He talks of being at a “crossroads” last summer, having first arrived in Orkney in 2006 and serving as principal teacher of biology for the past six years, with plans to leave the profession looking increasingly appealing, before the opportunity for an acting depute role made him stop and reconsider.

“This is the only place that could have persuaded me to do it,” he said. “At every step I just went with it if it felt right, and every step felt right.”

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Having seen the school fail to appoint a headteacher through several rounds of applications, he put his hat in the ring.

He still didn’t expect to be seriously considered for the role, but by the time he reached the final round of interviews he realised something had changed: “I finally admitted to myself that I wanted it.”

It’s obvious that he is still adjusting to his new position, but equally clear that he is hugely committed to his school and the community it serves.

Having worked here so long, he is also proud of the institution he now leads, and it occurs to me he is probably more comfortable showing someone like me around than he could ever be sitting in planning meetings or battling with budget pressures.

Even now, before we head off into the school, I have noticed something, or rather the absence of something – uniform.

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I wonder whether the pupils I see might be going to or from a PE class, or if my visit might have coincided with a non-uniform day.

I was sort of right on the latter point: Paul tells me that every day is a non-uniform day here (and at most other Orcadian schools).  

Astonishingly, and contrary to the assumptions of many in the central belt, the refusal to control the clothes kids wear for six hours a day has not, in fact, made the whole sky fall down.

One of our first stops is the school library, but this isn’t just an attempt to pander to my English-teacher origins.

Even before I arrived at the school, I had heard about Frances Sinclair - a full-time, fully-qualified librarian who has been here for more than 30 years, and whose commitment to providing an inclusive space for all young people is immediately apparent.

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It is lunchtime when I arrive, which means – among other things – that a Dungeons and Dragons quest is continuing in the middle of the room. Other students are using the computers or browsing the very impressively stocked shelves.

At the top of a spiral staircase that would, no doubt, be regarded as a health and safety nightmare in some new-build schools, a quiet area has been set aside for individual reading and study.

In a physical sense, the library seems to sit at the heart of the school, and the fact that it can be accessed from two sides give it the feel of a central crossing or meeting point – the sort of beacon around which other things inevitably end up revolving.

“It does feel naturally inclusive,” Paul adds. “But you can’t take that for granted.”

I speak to a senior student who volunteers to help in the library, even running the lending service if Frances is not available.

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Why does he give up his own time for it? “I think I maybe just wanted people to have what I had.”

What he had, he explains, was a place where he felt welcome and included and wanted, which is a sentiment that is clearly shared by many other current and former pupils.

When I ask the main factors that made him feel that way, he doesn’t hesitate – intentionally or otherwise, he simply looks over my shoulder towards Frances, and I quickly realise that Paul has, perhaps without noticing, done the same thing.

The tour continues, with stops including the business education, PE and – of course – English departments.

Upstairs, next to a science classroom, we step outside onto a small balcony offering views across Stromness, and then step inside a former photography darkroom for which fresh plans are currently being formulated.

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Of all the different subject areas, however, it is art that offers the most striking and memorable experience.

When we arrive at the department we do not walk into a classroom – instead, teachers and their students work in a huge, custom-built, open-plan extension to the main building. In the simplest terms, it’s a big metal shed – but it’s also much more.

The space is divided into three main parts. On the floor, a row of standalone shelves creates two separate teaching areas, both of which sit below a mezzanine balcony accessed via a staircase in the middle of the room.

Looking down from that vantage point, Paul and I stop for a moment to watch as two classes get started, but it’s all quite a long way from what you might witness in a more traditional “classroom” setting; it feels much more like a creative studio environment.

I put it to Paul that, in some schools, there might be concern about, and resistance to, the lack of uniformity in terms of lesson routines and teaching approaches, but this clearly isn’t something that concerns him: the most important thing, he insists, is trusting staff.

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It feels like he, as a former science teacher, recognises a quite fundamental difference between his subject and one like art, and is perfectly comfortable respecting the specialist expertise and unique way of working that we see on the floor below.

Respecting the students, and giving them space to develop, is also an obvious priority in this department, where the mezzanine floor has been transformed from a chaotic storage area into a studio space for those studying the subject to exam-level.

Each individual is given their own, personal work area, and are encouraged to treat it as their own space for experimentation and creativity.

The various sketches and works-in-progress left out across the desks are, it seems to me, testament to the trust between pupils and to the atmosphere that has been created; the quality of some of the finished pieces perhaps shows what happens when you really focus on allowing young people to flourish, as opposed to obsessing over controlling their activities.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Stromness Academy isn’t the lack of uniform, or any particular department, or even the indoor tree – but rather what happens on a Friday afternoon. This is when ‘activities’ take place.

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I know of many other schools setting aside time where traditional subjects are set aside, but this is often tied to ideas of pupil attainment.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s not what happens here.

At Stromness there doesn’t seem to be any pressure to ensure that the activities on offer are educational in any traditional sense of the word because the goal isn’t to tick boxes or tot-up points.

It’s something else entirely.

Some of the options – like Young Enterprise, help with UCAS statements, and volleyball – would likely still make the cut if attainment were the name of the game, but then there are others like social games, art studio time, mindful colouring and, once again, Dungeons and Dragons.

The activities have been a feature of the week here for longer than many can remember, and as such even the staff I spoke to seemed to struggle to fully articulate the thinking behind it.

So far as I could tell, the main motivation is a belief that it’s ok to view pupils as human beings, and that there’s nothing wrong with trying to brighten the end of everyone’s week. In the words of one student: “You get to relax and be yourself.”

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It probably says something about the general state of education, in this country and many others, that this sort of sentiment might seem radically subversive to some, and it says something else about Orcadian education, and about Stromness Academy in particular, that the teachers at this school have the confidence to protect and promote this feature of their identity.

“Getting it right for every child,” Paul says, knowingly referencing one of the key buzz-phrases in all of Scottish education, “means all of the child.”

As I drive out of Stromness at the end of the day, I can’t help but wonder if that seemingly innocuous statement might just be one of the most radical ideas I’ve heard in Scottish education over the last 10 years.