THE Education Minister earned warm praise from an unexpected quarter at the weekend - the SNP's education spokesman.
Michael Russell acknowledged at the party's spring conference in Glasgow that Jack McConnell had "changed the face of Scottish education", but Mr Russell's praise had a sting in the tail: "Not that that was difficult. The previous face of Scottish education was Sam Galbraith and it needed changing."
Now that Mr McConnell had reformed the Inspectorate, brokered a post-McCrone settlement and made a start on tackling issues such as discipline, Mr Russell said, it was time to turn to the big issues. "It is absolutely vital to have a clear vision for education in Scotland."
The SNP's education policy document had begun "to stake out the ground", making the case for investing in education, particularly in the early years, while stressing the importance of valuing learning and of pursuing education for its own sake.
"Education should be fun and it should be about enjoying learning," Mr Russell said. Pressures on pupils and teachers from target-setting and assessment undermined education. One authority, he said, intended to introduce assessment at the age of three and a half.
"I failed the sandpit test today" could become the experience for more and more children, Mr Russell said scornfully.
Other speakers condemned assessment-driven policies and the conference passed a motion regretting "the distortion of learning at all levels which is caused by the imposition of activities and study designed only to ensure compliance with national tests and league tables".
Jo Docherty, theparty's Westminster candidate for Glasgow Cathcart and a retired teacher, said there were "assessments, assessments of the assessments, targets on assessments and assessments of the targets to see how they're getting on". The answer to driving up standards was more teachers, she said.
Janet Law, former SNP education convener in Perth and Kinross, said targets must be devised locally and had to be meaningful for parents if they were to win acceptance.
Irene McGugan, the SNP's deputy education spokesperson, described the "league table" approach, which ministers deny exists in Scotland, as "subversive and misleading". Ms McGugan added: "They say nothing about the quality of a school. There is no evidence league tables have improved anything in the 12 years of their existence.
"Young people had to think creatively and critically. But play, sport, art, drama and a whole array of extracurricular activities are being squeezed out by pressures to attain."
Pressures on universities also came in for strong criticism. Greg McCarra, a member of the University Lecturers' Association of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said that, while quality assurance must be welcomed, "the line has now been well crossed where we are having to spend so much time on it that it's eating into quality teaching and research".
In his leader's speech, John Swinney pledged that an SNP administration in Edinburgh would establish a "future generations fund" backed by oil revenues.
Mr Swinney attacked Labour's continuation of the Tories' "ludicrously expensive private scheme" to fund school building projects.