The big issue of the education election debate in Scotland should be standards. At first, that may seem a perverse view: this paper has scorned attempts to transport north of the border the arguments about falling standards that led to the emphasis on education in the election campaign in England. The education community has relied on statistics showing increasing levels of attainment by pupils and argued that what is needed is adequate funding to maintain and enhance the good work done by pupils and teachers. We have also pointed to the distractions caused by the Government's obsession with peripheral matters - batteries of national tests, opting out, increasing the number of assisted places.
Much energy has been expended on protecting schools from a right-wing agenda or unwelcome exports from south of the border. Often they are the same. It is little wonder that a laager mentality has grown up. Not only the teacher unions can be accused of protecting established structures and ways of doing things. There is a widespread fear that unless the defences are strong they will yield to changes for the worse. The result is blindness to weaknesses which, if disregarded, will become so obvious that they become a prompt for misplaced remedies.
Lindsay Paterson in his article on the page opposite and in an address he gave to the TES Scotland-sponsored conference on poverty and lifelong learning (page two) condemns the opposition parties for their defensiveness - a concern about structures that fails the challenge of marrying individual choice and public provision. His analysis is acute for a society that places reliance on corporate action to improve people's lives. There is a parallel in housing policy. For long the need was to provide good quality accommodation for those who could afford little towards it. The legacy is tracts of reasonable houses with inadequate community amenities contributing to impoverished lifestyles.
Parental choice, which all parties now support, has rightly raised expectations and allowed them to be realised. Housing policy dictated the siting of schools and still largely determines their success, at least by academic benchmarks. But whereas at one time parents moved house to ensure a better school they can now vote with their feet without flitting. The result, especially in Glasgow, is disturbing. Some schools lose good pupils because of the parents' charter, and their problems worsen. Success breeds success, and perceived failure becomes real.
The extent of the problem is masked by global figures showing steady progress, or by low expectations. Glasgow's education leaders have set themselves against the culture that accepts the city will inevitably prop up tables of achievement. But they will find little in the manifestos of the four main parties to offer them hope. Glasgow like other councils needs more money for its schools, but it also needs political determination to reduce the gap between performance in the best and the worst. A system that benefits the majority of our pupils ill serves some.
The Tories' response is too often to denigrate the public nature of education and to assume that tests and league tables will make everyone pull up their socks. But in defending the record of local authority provision in general the opposition parties have not yet worked out how it could better accommodate diversity and attention to the needs of individuals. Standards of expectation come before standards of achievement.