The annual report from the Secretary of State's Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets (page three) could be read as a dispiriting document.
The references to "broadly adequate" improvements, "significant gaps" and "limited progress" are all too familiar. The failure even of the high-flying island areas to break through or approach the target for Highers and equivalent level III qualifications is symptomatic of the "levelling off" in progress that so worries Professor John Ward, the council's chairman. At some stage, and hopefully before the target year of 2000, the mantra that Higher Still is likely to change all that will no longer be an available alibi.
But the council's report is liberally sprayed with more uplifting news. Progress has been made over the past three years, particularly at Standard grade and its level II equivalents. The Schools Enterprise Programme, which is thankfully about more than economic imperatives, is now well established. Adult guidance has become a national preoccupation. And, if nothing else, the lengthy list of 34 acronyms at the beginning of the report shows the burgeoning number of organisations with a stake in improving Scotland's educational effectiveness.
That, of course, is one of the main points. Achievement of the desired education and training outcomes is not a matter for the schools alone. The level II targets, for example, are for 19-year-olds while level III is aimed at 21-year-olds - three years after the relevant school stage or leaving date. Schools, of course, must lay the groundwork and cultivate positive attitudes to learning. But caution must be exercised if scapegoats are being sought at the turn of the century should the targets continue to prove elusive.
The council is increasingly turning its attentions, perhaps in desperation, to the lessons which can be learnt from overseas. This has its merits for there is nothing more suffocating than to be confined to self-congratulatory comparisons with England, which this year's report again shows is happily justified. But it is important to make comparisons with a wide enough range of countries rather than simply those in the Pacific Rim which come with their own "cultural packages".
It is also important to draw specifically educational as well as economic lessons. ASCETT's conference this week on these "tiger economies" has lifted our eyes once more to the horizon of the Pacific Rim, and there is nothing wrong with that. It shows what can be achieved but also, depressingly, how much ground Scotland still has to travel.