From the past to the future, Orkney inspires


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The close of this week’s hugely successful cabinet in Dornoch did not mean the end of my northern trip. I was quickly back on the road and up to Gill’s Bay, Caithness, for an evening ferry crossing to Orkney ahead of a packed day of meetings and visits.

Top of the agenda was Curriculum for Excellence. It may seem strange to make the trip outside of school term but that would miss the point of CfE – it is about much more than what goes on in the classroom. I was in Kirkwall principally to hear the views and answer the questions of parents. They are, after all, the people who have the most important role to play in encouraging and motivating their children.

I met representatives of Parent Councils from throughout the islands as well as several head teachers. What came across loud and clear was the commitment and hard work of those involved to ensure the children of Orkney receive the best possible education. Issues of concern included the impact of future budget cuts, class sizes and of course how the introduction of CfE will impact pupils  on a day-to-day basis.

Overall I was very I  impressed with the work underway to help explain to parents and pupils what CfE will mean for them. What is going on at Stromness Academy particularly impressed me. Not only have parents been sent newsletter updates, parent sub-groups have also been created to explain to parents what will happen on a subject by subject basis and they can also influence what is being taught.

I also met with some of those  involved in the Positive Parenting Programme (Triple P) which has seen Orkney lead the way for the rest of the Scotland.
Delivered  by specially trained practitioners the programme – which originated in Australia – offers advice on building positive relationships, setting rules, giving instructions and discipline. One school in Orkney – St Andrew’s Primary – is now going to offer the programme to the parents of the whole P1 intake, which is a major innovation and I am keen that the Scottish Government observes closely how it goes and learns from it. Orkney has been very generous in offering us the chance to do so.

After a productive meeting with the Chief Executive and Convener of Orkney Islands Councils it was onto the incredible Skara Brae village. Uncovered by a storm 160 years ago, this Neolithic site – one of many on islands blessed with countless archaeological treasures – is really something to behold. It has revealed so much about the lives of our prehistoric ancestors.  My particular focus was the education work being done with young people at every level to help them understand the richness of our heritage and I was impressed with the outreach undertaken and planed, including work with some school leavers who had shown no interest in history but were able to connect with their ancestors by visiting the place and suddenly realising how like us they were.

The learning continues at nearby Ness of Brodgar where Orkney College – a key part of UHI – is undertaking its third year of major excavations . In fact, my visit came just days after painted stones, believed to be 5,000 years old, where found at the site – the first discovery of its kind in the UK. The archaeological department of the College, within UHI,  is a centre of research excellence and I discussed with them what that is going to mean as competition heats up for academic funding. Their successes and focus will stand them in good stead.

Michael Russell Cabinet Secretary for Education & Lifelong Learning

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