What follows is little more than scattered traveller’s tales, gleaned from a very few days spent exploring the Orkney Islands. I apologise to any Orcadians who should happen upon this post for the lack of detail and insight it contains, but would just like to throw in a few thoughts on a system which seems to me – from a very cursory glance – to be worthy of further consideration.
The first thing you notice, looking out from the hostel on one of the smaller and more northerly islands, is the idyllic view of land and sea, layered in horizontal swathes of colour, from emerald to deepest turquoise to heathery brown and finally ocean indigo, all set off by a clear, azure sky. The second thing is a small herd of alpacas grazing a nearby field.
“Oh, they belong to the school children,” we were told. “They learn to look after them and run the herd as a business.”
The school in question was the primary school. It currently has seven pupils, but they are hoping to reach double figures in September. Older children take the ferry to a secondary school each day – whatever the weather – on a larger island nearby.
“They do arrive a bit green some days and it’s a while before they can focus on the first lesson, but they never complain,” a parent told me.
Post sixteen, they weekly board on the island known as Mainland.
“They all have to sign an agreement,” she said, “Saying they’ll take full responsibility for their behaviour and attitude towards learning – and they stick to it.”
‘Taking responsibility’ seems to be the core ethic on the islands. No one – young or old or in between – is mollycoddled and provided for. Everyone does what they can to add to the quality of life. We saw no litter, no graffiti or vandalism. The ‘oldest home in Northern Europe’ – a magnificently preserved pair of buildings which predate the Egyptian pyramids – is protected only by a gated fence to keep the cattle out. Not a DO NOT sign or so much as a crisp packet in sight.
I recently read a quote to the effect that you need a village to educate a child. In this case, they have an island to do the job. So yes, there are schools, and all the normal core curriculum subjects, but that’s just the start of it. They learn not just about ‘The Vikings’, but their Vikings – the ones who farmed and fished their islands. The history and culture of their home is shared with pride, so that every islander feels a deep and abiding connection with the land. A local poultry farmer gives the children a few eggs to incubate and rear each year. At lambing time each child is apprenticed to a farm worker and allowed to watch and sometimes help to deliver the babies.
The idea of informal apprenticeship pervades the place. As soon as a child or young person is judged or declares themself ready to learn a new skill, an older islander will take it upon themselves to teach and supervise them. Older ladies teach the skills of knitting and sewing to a new generation. A lad is expected to pick up a skill set that will enable him to be a useful member of the community, whether it’s how to demolish a wall or how to service IT equipment. Once these skills are mastered and the instructor judges the youngster to be capable, they are encouraged to do such tasks alone. Each teenager develops his or her own abilities and is happy to give back to the community who gave them the skills in the first place. The result: young people are a valued part of the community, appreciated by everyone; the elderly are cared for by those who learned from them in the past and children look forward to becoming as skilled and useful as their older siblings. No adolescent angst; no inter-generational tensions.
“Every new initiative on the island will only be given a grant if we can prove that it benefits every age group,” I was told by the development officer. “So we have a youth council as well as an adult one, and they get to say how their share should be spent. They were offered a youth worker, but they didn’t want that. They said they’d prefer a dart board in the pub, so they could play while their parents were drinking! Oh they all come to the pub. Everyone knows their age, and when they’re old enough to drink, the adults are around to keep a watchful eye.”
The transition from kid to adult seems truly seamless there.
“Our son, at 17, wanted to start up a fishing business,” a mother explained. “He told us he hadn’t a clue how to deal with all the paperwork, so I made an appointment for him with an accountant on Mainland. He took himself off there and sat down with them and learned all they told him, then he came back and got on with it. He’s never asked us for any help. That’s how it should be.”
And it is, isn’t it?