Government ministers are often accused of heading to other countries as a distraction from domestic political troubles. Michael Russell certainly has plenty to occupy him at home, but his visit this week to Finland and Sweden (p1 and 6) is not without precedent: the Tories' Michael Forsyth sought inspiration in Denmark and New Zealand, while Labour's Peter Peacock went to see what they were up to in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland and Ontario. The former returned from New Zealand fired with zeal to allow schools to opt out of council control; the latter came back from the same country determined to allow no such thing. "Fact-finding" missions often serve to confirm prejudices.
It is respectable, even admirable, for ministers to go abroad to learn for themselves, consider the ideas of others and sift through what lessons might be relevant at home. But learning from abroad is tricky. Sweden appears to be going in the opposite direction to Scotland, moving from an age of freedom to one of rigour in teaching. Finnish teachers are highly- prized, while the profession is given a body-swerve in Sweden. Where sits Scotland?
There is as much value in learning from other countries what not to do. When Mr Russell reached Helsinki, he must have wondered why he bothered, after one of Finland's top thinkers made clear that his country's educational success is unique and "probably can't be replicated". The key is to unearth the cultural factors that make a nation tick, then decide which of the ingredients are transferable - or desirable.
In truth, few ministerial foreign tours have led to lasting change at home. The closest to a legacy was left by Peter Peacock - and that was by inviting experts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to examine Scotland's educational books, not by globe- trotting.
Neil Munro, Editor of the Year (business and professional magazine).