On the final day of our special on education in Orkney, education writer James McEnaney recounts the story of his visit to Westray, where an unusual school sits at the heart of a remarkable community.

My day starts at 7am on a pier in Kirkwall, waiting to board the small, local ferry that will carry me north. The cloudless, freshly-washed blue sky is separated from the sea by a hazy white horizon and somewhere out there, beyond Shapinsay, Rousay and Eday, close to the very edge of the archipelago, lies my destination.

I spend most of the 90-minute crossing on the deck, watching as tumbling ripples of waves fold over and into themselves before radiating out over the glassy surface.

To the west I see Gairsay, Wyre – boyhood home of the poet Edwin Muir, and the reason for my first visit to Orkney several years ago – and Egilsay, the island on which St Magnus was martyred nearly 1000 years ago.

And then there it is: Westray.

There’s no need for satnav here – the island has one main road running from my arrival point in the south to Pierowall Pier, which is located just eight miles north.

Like a lot of Orkney’s roads it is also almost completely straight, with flat, fertile farmland ambling off towards the sea in all directions. Minutes after disembarking from the ferry I have reached my destination.

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As one of the larger and more isolated Orcadian islands, Westray is home to one of three junior high schools operated by the council.

Here, children are educated from the first day of nursery right the way through to the end of S4 – at present, there are three children in the nursery, around 40 in the primary and about 30 studying at secondary level.

For those wishing to continue their schooling, the next step would be transferring to Kirkwall Grammar School and making use of Papdale Halls of Residence.

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It’s clearly an unusual model and it’s one that I’ve been told I need to experience to have any chance of understanding. Fortunately Westray Junior High School's headteacher, Tim Ross, and the rest of the staff are only too happy to help.

My day starts with a quick chat with Tim but, as he has a PSHE class to teacher, he soon hands me over to three fantastic primary pupils who are going to give me the grand tour.

My guides take me to visit the nursery, a nurture room, primary and secondary classrooms, the dinner-and-gym hall and more.

They are meticulous but also, I gradually realise, incredibly confident, and as we go from room to room they seem completely at ease with the changing faces of adults and young people.

The reason, of course, is really quite obvious: even inside the walls of their school, they’re still in the middle of their community.

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Next, it’s time for a walk. Each week, the children in the nursery visit the local shop to buy their snacks, and today I get to come along, joining Tim, Caly, the nursery teacher, and the two tiny and extremely enthusiastic children – a boy and a girl – who, for today at least, constitute the entire class.

Everyone is happy to see them, and this is obviously because everyone knows them, but it’s later pointed out to me that on an island this size, with a population of fewer than 600 and where the arrival of a new baby is always big news, they’ve probably known those youngsters since they were born.

Snacks secured, we head back along the road, but there’s still time for a mini-adventure when the boy spots a particularly exciting snail on the pavement, picks it up, and carries it back to the playground.

Over the rest of the day I visit classes, chat to the staff, and hear from young people. At one point this turns into a larger discussion with some of the older pupils, and one explains that one of the downsides here is the relatively narrow range of job opportunities after school.

I suggest that this problem could perhaps be solved by the building of bridges and tunnels between Westray and mainland, and his horrified face tells me everything I need to know both about that particular proposition and the strength of identity amongst those who live here.

The absence of road connections, and the length of my earlier ferry crossing, also explains why a tiny aeroplane is such a vital cog in Westray’s educational machine.

There are none here today, but a number of teachers fly in to teach in the morning and then fly back to mainland at the end of the day.

This is all part of the messy compromise that is Orcadian education, and generally speaking it works well, but it also makes sense to me that the core staff, from nursery lead practitioner up to the headteacher, actually live here.

This is their community too, and the strength of that connection comes across very clearly. Teachers always care about their pupils – the job wouldn’t be worth doing otherwise – but the depth of those feelings are what makes this seem like such a special place.

It has been a genuine privilege to be able to spend time at Westray Junior High School. I’m not sure I’ve ever been made to feel more welcome in my life, and would happily spend a great deal more time here but it's suddenly 3pm.

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With the school day now over, I’ve got a couple of hours free before I need to be back on a ferry to Kirkwall. I could do with some time to think about what I’ve seen, heard and felt today, so I decide the make the best possible use of my time: I buy myself a hat, park the car at the nearby pier, then walk along to a beach that I have been told is “quite nice”.

In reality, it is utterly idyllic.

There’s a strong ‘last gasp of summer’ feel going on as the sunlight skips across the rippling waves and soaks into the surroundings. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my trousers, and spend the next 45 minutes paddling in ever-increasing circles as I think back over the past few hours.

Junior high schools, like a number of features of Orcadian education, are an obviously imperfect response to a problem with no clear, singular solution.

Some people will regard them as a bad idea, with their reasoning most likely centred around the post-primary curricular offering for pupils at schools like this one. Inevitably, some subjects that are almost always available elsewhere aren’t an option here. The combined efforts of resident and travelling teachers means most subject areas are covered, but there are some, such as modern studies, that are not possible.

Some might also argue that it makes no sense to keep the students here until the end of S4, and that if the junior high model is to be used at all, it would surely be better to give them access to a full range of subject disciplines in the first year of their exams, rather than waiting until the second?

The problem is that this line of thinking prioritises a narrow idea of educational breadth above all else, missing an obvious flaw in the reasoning: young people in Westray deserve to be educated close to home and in their own communities, just like almost every other child in this country.

What’s more, the provision of high-quality and accessible education and childcare is a crucial step in protecting places like Westray – this is true in every corner of Scotland, but becomes particularly important in areas where the line between vibrancy and decline is so desperately thin.

The children of this island need the junior high school, but so does the island itself, and although they may not have access to everything that mainland kids have, what they get in return is too precious to ignore.