THE cry went up from many quarters: “Scottish education used to be the envy of the world – look at it now!”

And it would be idle to pretend that there wasn’t some cause for concern with the latest statistics from the Programme for International Student ­Assessment – the much quoted Pisa scores – suggesting that Scotland was suffering a drop in competence for 15-year-olds across maths and science, although doing rather better in reading.

More worrying, is probably the ­stubborn nature of the attainment gap proving, as common sense tells us, that kids in the leafy suburbs with engaged parents who have ­relatively few poverty issues are ­usually ­going to perform better than their ­disadvantaged peers.

It is that latter group that most deserves our focus in trying to roll out a more ­equitable and level educational playing field.

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However, buried in those self-same ­statistics is the fact that our young ­people scored highly on “global ­competence” and “were among the most likely in the ­developed world to understand and ­appreciate the ­perspective of ­others and demonstrate ­positive attitudes to ­immigrants”. They also scored highly when assessed on their “­ability to evaluate ­information and ­analyse multiple ­perspectives.”

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I’m guessing at least some of this is down to the much-maligned Curriculum for ­Excellence which, you may recall, was introduced to produce successful learners, responsible citizens, confident ­individuals and effective contributors. Arguably these outcomes are even more relevant in a ­century where these very qualities have never been more in demand.

Yet there is still resistance to anything which diverges from the age-old ­obsession with exams or the tyranny of school league tables. These tables will tell you what ­percentage of learners in a school attain Highers or enter universities. They won’t bother to measure the greater ­effort ­required by teachers who move a ­different cohort up a much more challenging ­achievement ladder.

Scotland’s education secretaries, let’s be blunt, haven’t always been round pegs in round holes, but it does no harm that the latest incumbent is an ex-teacher, with a ­sibling still in the profession.

The National: Minister Jenny GilruthMinister Jenny Gilruth (Image: PA Photos)

Early feedback suggests that she’s been in listening mode without becoming a prisoner of those in the teaching unions who regard any change and reform as the devil’s work. And some of whom were less than thrilled at the fact that we are now to have a Centre for Teaching Excellence in Scotland.

What is it about the pursuit of ­excellence which gives some folk the heebie jeebies?

Covid and serial lockdowns obviously had an impact across all of the 81 nations that form part of Pisa. Yet some countries coped rather better than others. And oddly, here in Scotland, Covid actually provided an accelerant to an educational innovation.

e-Sgoil – which is Gaelic for “e-school” – began life rather ­modestly in 2016 as a way of addressing teacher shortages in the Western Isles.

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Given that its lessons were tailored to providing screen-based teaching and learning, it very much came into its own when formal classrooms were ­involuntarily closed.

It still regards itself as ­complementary to regular schooling but has proved ­invaluable in providing specialist online supply teachers where it hasn’t been ­possible to recruit them.

It’s also, according to its young ­learners, provided a safe and less ­anxiety-inducing space for students who are not ­comfortable in traditional schools ­because of psychological or physical ­challenges.

The staff it supplies online are all ­General Teaching Council registered, so there need be no fears about the ­quality of the offering. Increasingly it’s not just schools in remote areas which have taken advantage of e-Sgoil, but urban establishments that may need specialist input in subjects where there are only a few students and the cost of recruitment wouldn’t be worth it.

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When you think about it, most kids these days are not only screen ­literate but much more at home with digital ­technology than either their parents or teachers. Judging by the impact ­report from earlier this year, none of the young people accessing lessons this way ­considered themselves short-changed – not least as they could also access the teaching notes on screen at their leisure.

There are other issues to be resolved, of course there are. It’s the job of the head teacher rather than any politician to ­decide on what to do about the use, and more usually misuse, of mobile phones in the classroom. Pilot studies suggest that keeping them out of commission during school hours has a positive impact on learning and concentration.

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It’s one of many modern arenas where individual rights are liable to collide with the greater good. Yet outside of their known ability to distract, mobiles have been seen to have a more sinister side. I attended a seminar where a senior police officer told us about the use of sex-based images to blackmail pupils.

Typically, she said, a girl would be ­enticed to text a picture of herself ­partially nude in the belief that it was ­going to just the one boy. Then she would be ­threatened with wholesale sharing – ­sometimes with devastating ­consequences.

That’s not something a cabinet ­secretary can legislate on, but what is within ­political control is teacher numbers. It’s a running sore that there has been ring-fenced money to keep teaching staff ­stable, at the same time as cash-strapped councils have obviously syphoned off some of that to attend to other budgetary demands.

I can’t imagine any councils just at the moment would be thrilled at the thought of fiscal sanctions being applied when their budgets are in meltdown. Plus, just when you need the Convention of ­Scottish Local Authorities to be in your corner, it doesn’t help that the First ­Minister ­announced a freeze on council tax with no prior consultation.

So there are multiple players in this ­education game. Local authorities, ­teachers, parents, carers and politicians. All with their own agendas, many of which hardly dovetail. All with their own pet theories about the only true way ahead from which they will not easily be shifted.

For each generation of children, their time being educated is short and precious. They can’t afford to be failed by adults. There are, as we all know, teachers who have always gone the extra mile to give the kids in their temporary care the best shot at a decent future.

There are some others – hopefully a minority – who drifted into teaching and have no particular aptitude for imparting information in a creative and accessible way. Most of us have encountered both in our own classroom journeys.

And there are still others, the pioneers of e-Sgoil among them, who see a ­problem and transform it into an opportunity, rather than impotently beating their breasts.

When the Curriculum for Excellence first hoved into view it said it recognised “the knowledge, skills and attributes that children and young people need to thrive in our interconnected, digital, and rapidly changing world”.

It was also keen that teaching staffs – long frustrated at being unable to ­express ­themselves within a too-­structured, ­inflexible environment – should be ­empowered to respond to the diverse needs of their pupils and their ­community.

Some grasped that new freedom with both hands. Some demanded more ­guidance as to how that brave new world could and should be delivered.

So yes, we need to do better. Sure there are areas in need of reform. But it would surely be a mistake if we chucked out 21st-century thinking in favour of the prescriptive teaching only to tests and exams, which seems still to be prevalent elsewhere in the UK.

Being “globally competent” in a global environment, being able “to analyse ­multiple perspectives” and being ­positive about the contribution of migrants and new Scots seems to me well worth ­hanging on to.