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Softly, softly go the Orkney squad

Far from the English rush, the islands can still embrace the language of assessment. Jill Parkin finds the back of beyond looking calmly forward

There's one word everyone uses about Orkney: remote. From our eight-seater aircraft, it's easy to see why. The view, of green islands in a blue sea, is stark. There are no trees, the roads cut fairly straight lines across a fairly level land, and the houses are scattered. We drop down on the unlit and ragged runway of Stronsay and pick up a couple of passengers before heading off for what they call Mainland, the biggest of the 70 islands, and the main town, Kirkwall. It has been a day of assumptions challenged and I wander off to sit in the pink cathedral of the Norsemen to think it over.

Orkney is different, even the objects in the Viking cathedral of St Magnus are unusual: there's a Norwegian bible, and a silk tapestry interweaving the islands' Scandanavian and British identities. In the school I have visited on the isle of Sanday, the youngest children are following a Swedish maths programme.

Yet the most exotic thing on offer in the local International Takeaway is a doner kebab; in three days I have not seen a black face; and I have sat in on a video-conference between a 28-pupil school on Mainland and a 12-pupil school on Papa Westray. Remote and insular: both are literally true, but it is a limited truth.

Cut off like this - children on the smaller islands live in a hostel when they transfer to Kirkwall grammar school - the place must be desperately behind the times. After all, there are no traffic lights; my hotel seems to be the last refuge of the prawn cocktail and the Gaelic coffee; and in the shops they wait for you to sort out your money without sticking out an impatient hand.

Two years ago John Dayus came from Birmingham inner city to Sanday community school, a junior high taking children from nursery to S4 (equivalent to English Year 11). He reminds himself why every morning: "I tune in to the traffic hold-ups on the M6."

John, who has written books on developing writing skills in secondary pupils, brought with him a whiff of the metropolitan south and an expertise in assessment that the islands have grabbed with both hands. His special interest is a project, being piloted throughout Scotland, called Building Bridges in Literacy P6 - S2. It aims to bring coherence to English during late primary and early secondary years.

The approach is one of co-operation. Teachers are being hurried into nothing and have divided themselves into school clusters, each working on a particular aspect and meeting to share the goods with each other.

"It's three or four years behind what they've been doing in England, but it's more concentrated, more considered," says Mr Dayus. "We've taken the good bits from the literacy strategy and incorporated them."

He believes the Scottish approach is closer than anything he has seen in England to the practical application of Inside the Black Box, the bible of assessment written by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam.

"Here in Orkney we have particularly embraced the Black and Wiliam idea of comment only. We know that there's considerably more improvement in the work of a child who has had comment-only feedback and the work of a child who has had either just a mark or a mark and a comment. So we're moving towards that.

"We also use peer assessment - constructive suggestions only - and self assessment. That depends on the pupils knowing what they are supposed to be doing. Of course, here I have more time than I had in Birmingham, more time to check they know what they're supposed to be doing."

Back on Mainland, Liz Baxter, head of Orphir primary, drives me past the distillery on the banks of Scapa Flow, the massive natural harbour where the Viking king Haokon kept his fleet. On its bed lie many wrecks - including HMS Royal Oak.

Liz is development officer for project 4 of Assessment is for Learning. She talks about the Scottish Executive and Learning and Teaching Scotland with an enthusiasm few English teachers feel for their Whitehall equivalents.

"Assessment is for learning isn't something which has been thrust upon us.

It's very much grown from the bottom up and we're all doing something relevant to our school context. And we've been given the money to do it properly - pound;12,000 per cluster.

"Orkney is so small all the heads know each other. Sharing good practice - ideas for assessment - is easier because of that. The idea of sharing is fundamental to assessment anyway: you have to share the learning intentions and the criteria for success with the children. They have to take responsibility for their learning. It's about ownership of your learning."

Ownership, intervention, sharing: the things today's teachers do to and with language would have caused some raised eyebrows among my English mistresses.At this point that I begin to wish we'd stopped at the distillery for a sniff of the malt to relieve the whiff of jargon, but Liz assures me I will see some of this ownership in action at Papdale primary in Kirkwall.

Papdale is a big school in Orkney terms, around 600 pupils, 35 teachers and 29 support staff. It feels grittier than the small island schools. But Christine Sinclair, a teacher just a few years off retirement, is excited about assessment, and that, as she says, is quite something at this stage of her career. She is carrying an L-plate and two other items: a big question mark and an owl. In her wake come three small children to explain to a simple-minded reporter the ownership of their learning.

"The L-plate goes on the board next to what we're doing. It tells us what we're doing. If you forget, you can go back to the L-plate."

"The question mark tells us why we're learning what we're learning. It goes on the board too."

"The wise owl on the board tells us how we'll know we've done it."

There: learning intentions, learning purpose and criteria for success from a bunch of seven-year-olds.

At Papdale, they have their own bible on assessment: Shirley is to be found hanging around the staffroom in a dog-eared state, but she is much loved.

Staff wondering what Shirley has to say about anything grab a copy of Unlocking Formative Assessment by Shirley Clarke (Hodder Stoughton). Its advice is detailed and well-targeted for younger pupils.

Fiona MacDonald, working with her 10-year-olds, proceeds in small Shirley-sized steps. "I'm not looking for a perfect piece of writing, not expecting them to think about everything at once. We'll concentrate on at most two or three things at a time, perhaps commas and full stops, and then use peer assessment - we call it having a writing buddy - to see how we've done.

"And of course we have Walt and Wilf."

Walt and Wilf? These are two little card characters who look as if they belong in the Tetley teabags advertisement. They're used to point out "We are learning to" and "What I'm looking for." Learning objectives to some, Walt and Wilf to the kids.

As I leave somebody mentions Tibs, an assessment-friendly acronym for "This is because". It's on the tip of my tongue to ask about the school cat but, untypically overwhelmed by tact, I talk about some beautiful feltwork done by the older pupils, full of Nordic themes.

Back in the hotel, after a dram of Scapa, I conclude that what makes Orkney different is pace. Freed from so many problems of size and discipline, teachers have the time to develop their assessment techniques. They have the support of not only their executive, but of their pupils and their pupils' parents. And no doubt they will have time to discard what doesn't work and share what does. They are not so much behind the times as simply not in a desperate race to beat the clock.

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