IT looks as though Edinburgh Zoo may have a rival in the coming years, at least in terms of giant pandas, writes Martin Hannan.

For ahead of his visit to the US which started yesterday, President Xi Jinping of China stopped off for two days in Finland and offered the country a pair of pandas to mark the signing of an extensive treaty between the world’s biggest country in terms of population and one that has only 200,000 people more than Scotland.

They will cooperate on everything from trade and investment, environmental protection, sport – Finland will help China prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics – and education.

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“Our relationship has become a model of friendly co-existence and mutually beneficial cooperation between countries that are different in population and size, history and culture, social system and development level,” said President Xi.

Most observers think China really wants access to Finland’s fabled education system which provides the best qualified workforce in the world.

The bilateral agreement states: “Education and life-long learning play a key role in creating sustainable social development. Educational cooperation, including teacher training and research on learning, will extend to all levels in order to co-create modern learning solutions to foster 21st-century skills.

“The two sides will encourage exchanges between think tanks, and provide intellectual support to promoting cooperation. People-to-people exchanges will be enhanced in education, research and innovation cooperation.”

Scotland has growing links with China but is unlikely to sign such a comprehensive agreement until independence comes. In the meantime we are looking to Finland for leads in fields such as health and education.

The Baby Boxes which the Scottish Government will deliver to every new baby’s home are directly inspired by Finland, and health experts here are known to be looking at Finland as an example of a country which has turned round its health issues.

Finland, not Scotland, was once the sick man of Europe, leading the continent in the number of deaths from heart attacks. It took a long time and a concerted national effort, but anti-smoking and fitness campaigns and much greater concentration on proper diets have vastly improved the overall health of the nation.

Finland’s outstanding achievements in education have had many more nations than Scotland beating a path to Helsinki to find out why the Finns are so good in this vital area.

Yet late last year, there was a shock to all of Finnish education’s admirers. For in the supposedly definitive Pisa international education rankings, Finland, like Scotland, had slipped down the tables as Singapore emerged on top.

Leading Finnish educator Dr Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons 2.0 – What Can The World Learn From Educational Change In Finland, was sanguine about the decrease.

He told newspapers: “It is now very interesting for others to take a closer look at how Finland will deal with this new situation of slipping international results.

“The first lesson certainly is that the best way to react is not to adjust schooling to aim at higher Pisa scores.

“The second lesson is that sustainable improvement of education requires protecting and enhancement of equity and equality in education.

“Finally, what Finland should learn from these recent results is that reducing education spending always comes with consequences. Whether Finland’s politicians and bureaucrats take these lessons seriously remains to be seen.”

He might well have been talking to Scotland.