One needs to fit in as well as stand out
They are popular because they are full of practical ideas that work in the classroom - but challenging because they deal with power and relationships.
A recently published book gives powerful ammunition to their supporters. In The Impact of Inequality: how to make sick societies healthier, Richard Wilkinson, professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, describes the effects that social and economic inequality have on individuals and whole societies.
He explains why, in rich countries, prosperity has not brought about the social benefits and personal well-being that might have been expected. He charts how low relative income in rich countries leads to social risk factors, the top three of which he identifies as having a difficult start in life, few friends, and low social status.
What Wilkinson says about status struck a chord with me, because I came to his book soon after reading Judith Rich Harris's No Two Alike on human nature and human individuality. She points out that evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics show that surviving in groups has always been a crucial part of what it is to be human; to do that, we need to be able to be accepted, to belong, to be affiliated or to "fit in".
On the other hand, some people not only have the potential to be our best source of help but also our most powerful rivals. That is why surviving in groups, especially where resources were scarce, also meant we needed to compete, to look after our interests, to be free to take our own decisions, to pursue our goals and to "stand out" from the rest. This is why humans everywhere are so hung-up on status.
Wilkinson points out that, in our increasingly competitive and divided society, more and more young people feel dismissed and devalued. He believes that the social side of human nature is ignored in public policy.
People are often treated by policy-makers as self-interested consumers who are encouraged to "stand out".
He believes that politicians need to tackle the inequities that divide society. For him, the problems of poor educational performance cannot be reduced while a substantial proportion of the population see themselves as educationally, socially and economically inferior.
This does not mean that schools and teachers are helpless. They can play a significant role in helping young people "fit in". Indeed, many schools are an oasis in young people's lives. They are places which model inclusive, egalitarian and democratic values and promote genuinely collaborative relationships at all levels - places where young people feel valued and appreciated, rather than put down or ignored.
The same goes for teachers. Dominance hierarchies in staffrooms are becoming less acceptable. Schools are getting better at building affiliative relationships where other people are a source of mutual aid, friendship, co-operation and security.
This is why the three staff development initiatives can help people at all levels in schools. Yet only one is openly supported by the Scottish Executive.
It could provide a basis for looking again at our national priorities in education (re-member them?). It could clarify the mixed and vague messages contained in the four capacities (set in stone?). And it could require HMIE to focus less on how schools help pupils "stand out" in their reports and more on how schools help them "fit in'.
Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited