NICOLA Sturgeon has staked her personal reputation on closing the educational performance gap between rich and poor in Scotland. In her characteristically forthright style, the First Minister said earlier this week, “I want to be judged on this”. It’s about time some political leader did.

Scottish pupils in poor areas are half as likely as those in more affluent areas to get one or more Highers. New data shows 9.7 per cent of applicants from disadvantaged Scottish communities have been accepted for university this summer compared to 17 per cent in England and 13.9 per cent in Northern Ireland.

There’s no question Scotland has a problem but how do you fix it?

The First Minister’s initial move is to introduce standardised testing for primary pupils. Currently 30 out of 32 councils use it, but according to Ms Sturgeon: “Many local authorities use different systems. That makes it … pretty near impossible to get a clear and consistent picture of progress. That’s why we are now developing a national improvement framework.”

Of course this sounds good. But the EIS teaching union is opposed. Its general secretary, Larry Flanagan, says: “A return to a national system that uses standardised tests as a benchmark is untenable and will do nothing to raise standards. We remain opposed to any suggestion of a national testing system, which will inevitably lead to teaching to the test and the construction of flawed and misleading tables.”

I’d suggest he is right.

Educational attainment is only slightly related to the performance of individual pupils, schools and teachers – it is inextricably linked to family income and positive social background. That’s why state schools in wealthy suburbs outperform even expensive private schools and wealthy children in large classes do better than poor kids in small ones.

There is only so much schools can do to equalise life chances when society won’t act to equalise incomes and invest massively in pre-school care – proven to produce better educational and social outcomes over a child’s entire life.

Of course the SNP promised free kindergarten if Scots opted for independence so that economic returns would reach Scottish coffers, not the London Treasury. Sure, that would have been ideal. But here we are in devolved reality with just as urgent a need to turn our social priorities around.

Childcare in most Nordic countries isn’t free but it’s truly affordable – a maximum of £200 per month in Norway and free for the poorest. Might it not be worth charging middle-class Scottish parents a little so we can get universal provision rolled out fast? The reward can be seen from the Pisa tables which compare the educational attainment of children in different countries – and regularly put Finland right at the top of the heap.

So what are the Finns doing right? Like all the Nordics, they have genuinely affordable high-quality kindergarten between the ages of one to seven.

That means Finnish children spend a lot of time learning the soft skills of language, cooperation, problem-solving and teamwork through engaged play and primary school is not just glorified childcare and kids start school able to speak fluently and confidently in their own language and ready to hit the ground running in formal education.

Another big difference is the qualification of the average Finnish teacher. Only the best students there become teachers and even primary teachers have masters degrees which take five to six years to complete. Teachers are not necessarily higher paid than other professionals but are definitely held in higher esteem and have freedom to adapt the curriculum.

Finns try to avoid external examinations and keep children in the same school from seven till 14, avoiding the upsetting move which occurs here at the age of 11. They also have smaller schools and smaller class sizes than us because they’ve found students who are weaker academically flourish in more familiar spaces.

Only three per cent of schools in Finland have more than 600 students, 95 per cent of Finnish kids go to state schools and of course, Finnish society has nothing like the damaging income polarity of Scotland, which destroys all chance of a supportive home learning environment for many poor children.

But of course, even if schools can only apply sticking plaster, they can do that badly or well.

According to an OECD report in 2007, Scottish schools are: “Not strong enough to counter the negative effects of low social status on education or attainment.” It said other countries were far better at ensuring children from disadvantaged backgrounds reached their potential. And that’s doubly damning. Scotland has been riven with inequality since industrialisation, so we should be past masters at targeting compensatory resources on predictable problem areas. We are not.

Is a return to measurement and league tables really the answer?

According to Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg: “When I look around the world I see competition, choice and measuring students and teachers as the main means to improve education – but not in Finland. Equity in education comes before ‘race to the top’ school reforms here.”

The curriculum for excellence is a brave Scottish initiative. Could we not be braver still and learn from the Finns?