Every parent needs a bit of time away from their children - and it’s ok to admit that - but for most of us, the thought of sending them away for 30 weeks of the year would be fairly horrifying. For many Orcadian parents, however, things are different. 

Boarding is an integral part of the archipelago’s education system; for the young people growing up away from mainland, Papdale Halls of Residence will almost certainly be a significant part of their lives. 

On Westray, Sanday and Stronsay, Junior High Schools offer education up to the end of S4, and anyone wishing to continue schooling past this point then transfers to Kirkwall Grammar School. For those from islands with access to only a primary school, the move comes even sooner. 

Travelling to and from mainland each day, even without the inevitable disruptions of the winter weather, simply isn’t a viable, or fair, option: North Ronaldsay, for example, is more than two-and-a-half hours from Kirkwall by ferry and even if space on flights could always be guaranteed, that sort of commute is hard enough on adults never mind teenagers. 

Young people deserve to be educated in their own communities so far as possible, so if children are going to live right across Orkney, and if the communities in which they live are to be sustainable and respected, then some sort of boarding arrangements are necessary and inevitable. There’s just no getting away from it. 

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In some ways, the current generation’s experiences of boarding are very similar to those of their parents, but there have also been improvements over the years. I’m told that in the past there was a single boat that was sent round to collect all boarders (meaning that students had to endure an hours-long voyage around the archipelago) and that they were only able to get home once a term; neither is still the case. 

The other change is one that I can see for myself. Papdale’s previous incarnation still stands nearby, brooding over Kirkwall and looking like the offspring of a prison and a 1960s outdoor centre. It was supposed to have been demolished by now, and the latest suggestion is that it might finally come down next year, when a nursery currently using some of the space moves to a new location. Then again, it also has the look and feel of a building that is determined to outlast everything else around it, even if it has long since outstayed its welcome. 

The new facility, on the other hand, is a modern public building constructed in the style of most other modern public buildings. From the cladding on the outside to the hinges on the doors, it could all be almost anything else - a GP surgery, perhaps, or the HQ of a bureaucratic government body. But while it might not be the most imaginative of buildings, it is bright, warm and comfortable, and at least looks like it belongs in the current century. 

The young people who stay here each get their own room with an en-suite, and there are also studying and social space, as well as a communal dining area. A residential facility is still, in the end, a residential facility, but this one feels like it is at least trying to avoid the sort of institutional feel that could so easily take hold. 

It’s not just that the new building is better than the old - the present service is also designed to be more flexible. This means that a young person who wanted to leave one of the Junior High Schools earlier than fourth year could be accommodated, allowing her to make the decision that was right for her. 

The Herald:

Children from Rousey are able to travel to and from the island each day for school, but are also able to use the accommodation for some or all of the week, allowing them to largely stay at home but still, for example, take part in extra-curricular activities at school. 

But that flexibility is not guaranteed – in fact, it is already coming under pressure. Papdale is approaching capacity after the arrival of some new families, and it won’t take many more before the maths starts to look a lot more complicated. There is also an obvious gap in provision for young people who wish to attend college instead of high school. 

In future, the council may need to invest in extra buildings, a daunting prospect, no doubt, at a time of widespread cuts to public budgets, or even develop a whole new model, but for now, overall, this one seems to be mostly successful. 

Part of that success, I think, comes down to the fact that there is a clear idea of what the halls are for, and that this purpose is distinct from that of the school in which the residents are educated. This is not, after all, a boarding school – it is a care-focused facility allowing young people to access education.  

For those working here, the priority is wellbeing, not educational outcomes. They are called house parents rather than a more clinical alternative like ‘support worker’. The young people use their first names when they speak to them. 

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Their job is to help young people navigate a challenging situation at a time in their lives when other pressures, from homework to hormones, are also coming to the boil. 

What they cannot do, however, is replace the family environments that the young people leave behind when they come here. 

During my visit I speak to Debbie Slater , who manages the service. It is obvious that she cares a great deal about the children for whom she is responsible, but she is also admirably up-front about the limitations and challenges they face. 

“This is a welcoming environment,” she says bluntly, “but it is not a family environment, and let’s not pretend otherwise.” 

It’s a refreshingly honest analysis of the situation when the easy option would just be to hide behind platitudes and tell me that they’re “all one big family”. She’s also, obviously, correct: no matter what she or her staff do, neither they nor anyone else could possibly replace the children’s families or recreate the close-knit communities in which they have grown up. 

The Herald:

Slater is adamant that the young people here don’t need or want staff who are pretending to be something they’re not, and in making that argument demonstrates a level of respect that is all-too-often absent from these sorts of discussions. 

What they need, she believes, is people who really care about them, and who take the time to understand them. 

“They need to feel loved,” she adds. “ And we can do that.” 

Of course, what really matters is what the young people think, and fortunately some are willing to take a bit of time out of their day to speak to me. For them, going to the halls seems to be a fairly normal part of growing up, and they talk about the logistics and realities in matter-of-fact terms. There are no doubt plenty of things they’d want to change, such as the rule dividing the sections with girls’ and boys’ bedrooms, but they also help me to articulate how I’ve been feeling about this and other features of Orcadian education. 

So much of what I’ve seen is, to be totally honest, a messy compromise between the developmental needs of children, their rights to a full education, their connections to their homes, and the broader importance of protecting Orkney’s smaller and more remote communities. 

Yes, it’s an imperfect solution, and the pressure it puts on the young people at its centre isn’t entirely fair, but the last thing I hear before I leave says it all: “I’d still rather grow up here than in a city down south.”