A conference entitled "Delivering World Class Education for All: is Scotland rising to the challenge?" could be expected to provide plenty of hostages to fortune (page 11). And so it proved.
We heard of a country whose teaching force is strongly unionised, where there is a theoretical choice of school but in practice most pupils attend the local state comprehensive, where social factors influence exam results, where schools evaluate themselves and their judgments are put to the test by a national inspectorate, and where performance against other countries is good but is not as good as it used to be. Welcome to Sweden.
In other words, we learned the usual lesson we do whenever we try to benchmark one country against another: the similarities are striking. There are, of course, differences between Scotland and Sweden. One of those is the greater social integration, and sense of common purpose, which make it easier to deliver "world class education". These factors are frequently cited as one reason why Finland performs so well in international comparisons of performance.
It was a message which dovetailed with the remarks of Linda Croxford from Edinburgh University. She pointed to the stubborn social realities with which schools in Scotland have to contend, reinforced in no small measure by basing her case on evidence taken from studies over 18 years.
This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an excuse for failure. There are schools which punch above their weight. And the fact that there are often greater differences in pupils' performance within schools, as there are between schools, shows that there can be a poverty of expectations as well as of income. But the central message is surely that one can more easily rise to a challenge if the factors which prevent people rising to it are themselves challenged.