Commentators were all at sea in reaching for descriptions of the latest Pisa findings (p1). Scotland had "turned the tide", according to the Education Secretary. Not so, said the man from the OECD: we were merely "treading water". That's statistics for you. Both could well be right, and both waterlogged summaries may even mean the same thing. The performance of Scottish pupils in reading, maths and science is not in such sharp decline as previously; we are not out of line with the rest of the UK or some comparable countries and are considerably ahead of Wales.
But Scotland has edged much closer to the average over the past decade of Pisa results, and the average is not a place where most people want to be. So, yes, we have turned the tide and we are treading water.
It is, of course, the job of education ministers to be ebullient and the current incumbent will always win prizes for that. Michael Russell sets great store by Curriculum for Excellence to take us beyond the average. This is in line with the (civil service?) script of his many predecessors: any unflattering statistics would commonly be greeted by assurances that "full implementation" of the 5-14 programme or of Higher Still would save the day.
"The rest of the world is getting better faster." This is the refrain of our reformers - but the quote comes from an American (p8). The truth is that, with the possible exceptions of Finland and some Asian countries, all school systems are still seeking the Holy Grail of educational excellence. The struggle for continuous improvement has to come from within, however. We will seek in vain if we try to emulate countries with very different cultures, such as Finland, or others which are not exactly bywords for democracy.
Neil Munro, editor of the year (business and professional magazine).