Builders of great ships on the Clyde and of roads and bridges in the Empire, the Scots had the reputation of a practical race. Perhaps they still aspire to the accolade in that by international comparison our youngsters rank higher in practical tests than in written ones. The latest statistics from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study show that 13-year-old Scots have gone up the league table of 19 countries when practical tests are compared. Maths was still not a strong point, but in science practical performances brought a fourth place compared with 13th in the written tests.
The Government takes satisfaction in that hands-on experience in secondary schools appears to be paying dividends. Whereas the poor written test results in July were used as a prompt to the Government's standards crusade, the latest findings are interpreted by the Education Minister as signalling that our pupils are "competing well". In encouraging schools and teachers to do better, a carrot must appear as well as the stick.
Nowhere in the press briefing on the results is there comment on England's performance, which was ahead of Scotland's and up with that of the leading countries, always leaving aside the top-notch Singaporeans. It is a far cry from the Howie report which was able to point to Scottish superiority to England in preparing young people for higher education even if we could not rest on our laurels when the rest of Europe was taken into account.
The Government says that action is already under way to improve standards in mathematics. Comment on the HMIs' recent report focused on the use of calculators, which was deemed excessive for children insecure in handling number. There has been little reaction so far. Maybe principal teachers of mathematics are still working on the implications. They do not have Carol Vorderman's lightning speed of response.
International comparisons in maths and science are feasible but fraught with problems, as the TIMSS reports acknowledge. Curricula vary, as do the ways countries select and test samples of pupils. The results have to be treated seriously but not allowed to dominate debate about the way ahead. At least in Scotland, and especially in the primary school, areas of the curriculum cannot be meaningfully detached and compared in isolation across national boundaries. Languages, including the mother tongue, and the social subjects would be much more difficult to assess internationally and so no serious effort is made.
That underlines the need to look at our own position without overt reference to that of others. If HMI detects shortcomings and suggest improvements, the outcome some years down the line may be a better performance even against Pacific Rim countries. But it would be a welcome by-product, not a prime aim.
That should be the spirit in which the imminent report on S1 and S2 is awaited. It will cover the whole curriculum and address the reasons why some pupils fail to build on their progress in primary. The Assessment of Achievement Programme reports give a better indication of what needs to be done - in English as well as maths and science.