International surveys are wonderful things when the results are in our favour; when the outcome is less favourable, they are suspect. Either way, however, the latest studies, on reading, maths and science (p4-5), cannot be a conclusive verdict on the quality of any school system. They are subject to the vagaries of national policies and practices: if the inputs are inconsistent, the outputs will be the same (one former senior member of the inspectorate recalls sitting at a dinner in Japan beside an official who, it transpired, was responsible for selecting the youngsters to take part in international surveys).
The mis-reading of these reports is not helped by the inevitable ranking of countries in league tables: so Scotland slips six places in the PIRLS results on reading literacy, England drops 16 places and there is a national beating of breasts. The fact remains that both countries' performance is above the OECD average, in some cases comfortably so, or in line with it. That is true also of the PISA findings, published this week.
It would be foolish, however, to ignore some of the signals. While Scotland may be doing no worse than in previous surveys, we do appear to be standing still in relative terms because other countries are improving significantly. While some of our ablest pupils are holding their own with the best, deprivation appears to have a depressing (in both senses of the word) effect on how our pupils perform than in many other countries. And, while only five countries appear to do better at reading in the PISA survey, the PIRLS results reveal a worrying dislike of reading - in England as well as Scotland.
Standards will never be good enough, and there will always be a superior bygone age. But let us have a rounded picture before drawing conclusions. Hopefully, a report on the quality of Scottish education, due next week from the OECD, will help do just that.