Two contrasting findings on Scottish education have appeared in the past week. First, there was the highly satisfying conclusion that Scottish teachers are the most trusted professionals in the UK. Second, we were told yet again that the performance of Scottish pupils has got worse since devolution relative to the rest of the country, while at the same time they are the most generously provided for among the four home nations.
The public's trust in Scottish teachers is not a surprise, even if some simultaneously believe the education system is heading to hell in a handcart. On one level, the school spending and attainment study is also not surprising, since it contains figures which amply demonstrate why Scottish pupils cost more than elsewhere: the population is very sparsely populated, there are better pupil:teacher ratios, there are smaller schools and (although the report does not put a figure on it) teacher salaries are higher.
The authors have surprisingly little to say about the role of deprivation, both in inflating costs and dragging down pupil attainment; the higher secondary school spend in the four main cities and places such as West Dunbartonshire suggests socio-economic contexts have an influence. The spending analysis has to be treated with particular caution since, as the researchers admit, costs are not comparable. For example, they reflect what councils spend and councils run more schools in Scotland - one study in the 1990s concluded that this could account for as much as 14 per cent of the 23 per cent excess education spend in Scotland compared with England.
On the attainment side, one conclusion might be that the other UK countries had a lot of catching up to do and that it is much harder to make progress from a strong position. So we have question marks over the two sets of figures and the link between them. In the best traditions of research, the study is right to call for further research.