The Herald's education writer, James McEnaney, picks his top ten stories of 2023.

Orkney education: Westray is home to a truly unique school

Not long after joining The Herald, I was lucky enough to spend several days in Orkney learning about education in the archipelago. I met a new headteacher making a mark in an already fascinating high school, found out about boarding arrangements for pupils from Orkney’s smaller islands, and saw the sun inside an ancient cathedral. We also told the story of Amber, a young women whose mental health problems have seen her fall through the cracks of Orkney’s support services.

In the end, I felt that Orcadian education is imperfect and improvable, but also extremely special, and nothing made that clearer than my day on Westray, where something called a Junior High School caters for children from nursery all the way through until the end of S4. The school is absolutely rooted in the community it serves and, I think, could offer some interesting lessons for Scottish education as a whole.

READ NOW: Orkney education: Westray is home to a truly unique school

Can special skills lessons boost STEM in schools?

I’m never happier than when I’m in a classroom watching young people get excited about learning, so it was a real joy to get to visit St Marnock’s Primary School in Glasgow to find out about their experiences as part of a new project intended to boost STEM education in schools.

The whole thing is overseen by a team from the University of Glasgow and funded by the Turner Kirk Trust. Often, philanthropy in education is really just about attention-seeking, but this felt different, with money provided to enable a low-profile (but potentially very high impact) academic study into the specific educational benefits of teaching particular spatial concepts.

And the best bit was that the children absolutely loved it!

READ NOW: Can special skills lessons boost STEM in schools?

We survived genocide. This is why telling our stories matters so much.

The Herald: SarajevoSarajevo (Image: NQ)

Of all the things I thought I’d do as The Herald’s education writer, visiting Bosnia & Herzegovina wasn’t one of them. The trip happened at very short notice and came about thanks to the fantastic people at Remembering Srebrenica Scotland, which seeks to educate people about the Srebrenica genocide and raise awareness of the impact of ethnic and religious hatred.

During our time in Sarajevo we visited the hugely powerful War Childhood Museum and, thanks to our guide, learned a great deal about life during the 1425-day Siege of Sarajevo. I was also able to learn a little about the country’s education system, and how the segregation of young people acts as a barrier to peace and progress.

We were also able to visit Srebrenica itself, which was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

During our time there we met Fadila Efendić and Nedžad Avdić. Both survived the genocide but suffered terrible losses, and it was one of the greatest privileges of my life to be able to share their stories with readers in Scotland.

READ NOW: We survived genocide. This is why telling our stories matters so much.

Explained: how Scotland’s literacy and numeracy stats are calculated

Despite all the complicated ins and outs of a modern education system, literacy and numeracy remain the absolute fundamentals of learning. It is, therefore, critical that we are able to accurately determine pupils’ progress in these areas, and this applies not just at individual or school levels, but nationally too.

In Scotland we use something called ACEL (Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels) to do this, but there are serious concerns about the usefulness of that data.

Given that this data underpins not just education policy but also accountability, it’s important that people are able to understand how it is put together and what this means for its reliability, so that’s exactly what we set out to do.

READ NOW: Explained – how Scotland’s literacy and numeracy stats are calculated

How a Syrian academic is making a new life in Scotland

There are loads of good news stories in Scottish education – and some that even go beyond our borders.

The Council for At Risk Academics was founded in 1933 in response to the actions of Nazi Germany. It helps academics and their families reach a place of safety where they can also continue their work. More than twenty individuals currently working in Scottish universities are here because of CARA.

One of them is Nour Ghadban, a Syrian academic who is now completing her research at the University of Glasgow. Having come here with her family, she told me that she feels so welcome and happy that she wants to stay in, and contribute to, Scotland.

READ NOW: How a Syrian academic is making a new life in Scotland

Seamab: the school of hope caring for Scotland’s most vulnerable children

The Herald: Seamab CEO Stuart ProvanSeamab CEO Stuart Provan (Image: Gordon Terris/The Herald)

Seamab is a small school that caters for some of the most vulnerable children in Scotland. It is technically a private school, but with fees paid by the local authorities who send young people to live and learn there. The work they do at the school is extraordinary and vital, but the building from which they operate is not remotely fit for purpose.

Unable to access public funds, Seamab set out to raise around £5.5m. All they are asking for is a school suitable for the young people they serve – what does it say about our country that they even have to ask?

READ NOW: Seamab: the school of hope caring for Scotland’s most vulnerable children

Glasgow City Council scraps ‘essential’ children’s library service

Just as the new school year was starting I learned that a Glasgow-wide school library lending service had been shut down due to budget cuts. Teachers, parents, librarians and even the Scottish Book Trust hit out at the decision.

And then something bizarre happened – an official from Glasgow Life wrote a letter to parents claiming that our story was inaccurate and that the service was not being scrapped. However, the service has indeed been ended, with schools facing bills of hundreds of pounds if they wished to buy resources that had previously been free – all to save a grand total of £130,000.

These sorts of cuts have a huge impact on the education that young people receive and, while we’ll never be able to cover everything, I was really pleased to be able to shine a bit of a light on the issue. There might even be more to come.

READ NOW: Glasgow City Council scraps ‘essential’ children’s library service

PISA: Why a panicked and political response won’t help

When the latest PISA figures were published at the start of December, we made a huge effort to ensure that our coverage gave a full, fair, and properly contextualised picture of the data, and avoided the sort of shallow catastrophising that the data sometimes provokes.

So we reported Scotland’s scores and how they had changed relative to others, highlighted some easily overlooked PISA insight into the problems being caused by staffing problem in schools, and provided some early analysis of what the numbers actually tell us. Education researcher Barry Black also wrote for us.

To round this off, I wrote a longer piece in which I explained some more of the international and historical context for PISA, including questions over its very effectiveness and accuracy. Ultimately, I argued that while PISA should provoke soul-searching in Scotland, it absolutely must not become “a megaphone through which politicians, pundits, columnists and lobbyists scream that ‘something must be done!’”

READ NOW: PISA – why a panicked and political response won’t help

Learning new lessons at Glasgow’s pro-wrestling gym

When I joined The Herald I said that I wanted to cover education in a very broad sense. Of course we’d be spending a lot of time looking at issues in schools and other institutions, but learning happens everywhere and that diversity is enormously valuable – a society can’t function without it.

I’ve seen brilliant examples of all this in places like the Inverclyde Shed and the Loud ‘n’ Proud music school, but by far the most memorable so far has been my visit to Iron Girders, a pro-wrestling gym in Glasgow’s east end, where I learned – amongst other things – that the floor of a wrestling ring is not padded.

READ NOW: Learning new lessons at Glasgow’s pro-wrestling gym

How the Scottish Government spins education stats

Everyone knows that politicians spin stats to suit themselves – even if what they’re saying isn’t quite untrue, that doesn’t mean you’re getting the full picture. The range and complexity of education data makes this a particularly challenging problem and it is, I think, important that the The Herald tries to cut through that sort of noise and help readers become properly informed.

In November, the government responded to coverage of the country’s PISA scores by making a number of claims about positive progress in Scottish education. We responded by breaking down each one, identifying the kernel of truth, and then explaining the broader context.

READ NOW: How the Scottish Government spins education stats