Scottish schools are increasingly urged to emulate the Finnish model. I was neutral until I heard Jouni Valijarvi, director of the Finnish Institute of Educational Research, explain what made Finnish schools tick. Only 1.5 per cent of the population attend private schools. There are low levels of competition between schools and near-unanimous support for comprehensive education. Students' well-being is a priority. Universal free school meals are provided. The curriculum is decentralised and individualised. There is national evaluation, but based on sampling and not national testing. The inspection system has been abolished, but there is a high commitment to self-evaluation. There is a consensus on the quality indicators of excellent teaching.
The teaching profession itself is popular, esteemed and valued. Teacher training is to degree level at universities. A masters degree, in education or the teacher's subject specialism, is the norm for primary and secondary teachers. In-service training is continuous and welcomed by teachers. There is little direct oversight of the daily pedagogy. Even school principals seldom observe lessons.
Here is a culture where schools and teachers are trusted, where there is a political consensus in support of a comprehensive system and where the concept of educational equality is uncontentious. I'm a convert.
Finnish educational equality, however, is predicated on social equality. Perhaps we'd like to think that this description fits Scotland. It doesn't. The inequalities of Scottish and UK society are glaring. In Finland, the ratio of average income of the richest 10 per cent to the poorest 10 per cent is 5.6:1; in the UK it is 13.8:1. In Scotland, 20.4 per cent of households are workless. According to data for 1998-2002, a boy born in "Prime" Scotland - Bearsden, Clarkston or Kilmacolm - can expect to live to over 80, a record among the best in the world. If, on the other hand, he is born in Dalmarnock, Calton or Townhead, where life expectancy is closer to developing countries, he will not reach 60 - lower than in Bosnia, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip or North Korea.
This, of course, is the Britain in which Peter Mandelson could state that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich"; where, in 2007, under a Government led by the party traditionally committed to equality, the gap between the rich and the poor had grown to its largest for 40 years, and where a nakedly consumerist culture dominates. Selfishness is deemed a virtue.
It is proper that we should emulate Finnish education but, to build schools based on such educational principles, we require a society based on different social and moral principles from those that dominate us today. If our national mythology about the lad o' pairts, our pride in the democratic intellect, are to be more than rhetoric, we need to transform more than our schools.
Where in our contemporary society, which rescues bankers' bonuses but destroys vital jobs, in the public sector, is there any moral commitment to greater equality? The very language now seems of another age. The hard experiences of the Depression and the Second World War created the great consensus around social justice and equality on which the welfare state was built. Unless some similar moral consensus reasserts itself, the Finnish model of schooling will be a chimera, discussed at academic conferences but pursued by educational dreamers.
Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.