FIRST thing’s first: free school meals for all primary school children is a very good idea.

Yes, it’s good politics – being able to portray your opponents as the scourge of starving kids has plenty of benefits, especially when it is at least partly true – but it is also good policy: ensuring that no child, no matter their circumstances, goes hungry is a noble goal, and extending the school meals programme into the holidays makes this an even more powerful declaration.

I’m glad that John Swinney included the promise in his conference speech – the problem is that he said little else. Sure, there was a good dose of rousing rhetoric to rally the troops, and the cadences helped develop gravitas in just the right manner – but when it came to actual content, specifics about building that better Scotland we all want to see, it was largely conspicuous by its absence.

On area that needs to be addressed is teachers’ contact time, which is the portion of each week that they spend actually teaching classes. The figure in Scotland is higher than almost any other country in the OECD, and the implications of this imbalance are entirely negative. It may seem counter-intuitive but trust me: if we want to improve the quality of education then teachers need to be spending less time talking to our kids and more time talking to each other. That means more time, more teachers, more trust and – of course – more money.

Of course the elephant in the room is still Curriculum for Excellence. The cold, hard truth is that errors in the design and failures of delivery made it impossible for CfE to achieve the goal of transforming Scottish education.

READ MORE: SNP pledge to extend free school meal programme to cover all primary pupils

The coronavirus crisis has been devastating but it also provided an opportunity to reassess our strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. It could still be the catalyst allowing us to start building back better, but time is running out and, so far, all our energy has been expended on propping up the old, failed system rather than imagining a new one.

We need a new national conversation about the future of education – a no holds barred interrogation of what we have, what we want, and what we need to do to build a system fit for the children of Scotland in the 21st Century.

There are tough conversations to be had: we need to talk about the school starting age, the split between primary and secondary, the role of official organisations like Education Scotland, our entire approach to assessment and certification, and a whole lot more.

Instead, after thirteen years in power, at a time of life-changing upheaval, crisis and opportunity… the SNP offers free breakfast and lunch.

Whatever else it may have achieved, Swinney’s speech was a reminder that, at least when it comes to schools, this government seems to have run out of faith, focus and ideas.