SOME prep may be in order should Scotland’s teachers go on strike. It would, after all, be the biggest action of its kind since Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street, and it is important to do these things properly.

Having seen them marching through Glasgow recently, teachers are up to the mark in placard making and dressing appropriately for a spell outdoors. They could do with some extra lessons, however, in looking narked (everyone was spectacularly angry in the Thatcher era) and fashioning chants. Given the state of relations with the Education Secretary, how about the adaptation of a golden oldie, to wit: “Swinney, Swinney, Swinney, out, out, out!”

Despite the complaints about flippancy which featured regularly in my report cards, I should say that I take education very seriously. The question is, how much does Scotland, and this Scottish Government, value it?

The answers to that, on the face of it, are simple. Teachers say they merit a 10 per cent pay rise to make up for a decade of austerity. The government and councils are offering 3 per cent. A sizeable gap in expectation, but Mr Swinney argues that with a restructuring of pay grades all staff on the main scale will get at least 5 per cent and some as much as 11.

Judging by the votes to reject the offer (98 per cent in the case of the Educational Institute of Scotland) , teachers are in no mood to buy what Mr Swinney is selling, despite his argument that it is the best pay deal in the UK this year. Nevertheless, he has promised to “engage positively” with unions and Cosla to reach a deal. Cosla, for its part, is adopting a more in sorrow than in anger approach. While valuing and respecting the “incredible work” teachers do, a spokeswoman said it was not possible to make up for years of austerity “in one fell swoop”, and the 10 per cent claim “cannot be met within the resources we currently have available”.

So far, the mood of this dispute stretches from angry (the teachers) to politely stern and slightly hurt (the Scottish Government and Cosla). This Scottish Government is not used to being unpopular. Parents who will have to take time off work to look after children will be less than thrilled if there is a strike. Pupils, though perhaps delighted initially at the time off, will start to fret about what they are missing. This is what happens in a strike: there are consequences. Otherwise, what would be the point in taking action?

Teachers will not take any decision lightly. Particularly in Scotland’s poorest areas, they know better than most what it means to a child to have somewhere welcoming and safe to go each day, where they can learn, have a hot meal, be given a chance in life.

Yet still they appear to be moving towards a strike. Could it be that, like many others, they are simply fed up with Scotland not putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to education?

Scotland talks a great game on education. We are passionate about it, we respect its power to make poets out of ploughmen, and for a small nation we have traditionally punched above our weight. That, at any rate, is the picture on the shortbread tin. The reality under successive administrations, both before and since devolution, is an education system that is first class for the minority whose parents can afford to pay, and where almost everyone else takes the gamble of their lives.

It is a gamble that too many young Scots have lost in the past, and are losing still. Yes, there are teachers who can change a life for the better, schools that go all out to give children they best education they can. There are also, let us face it, rotten teachers who should not be in the job and schools where failure is in with the bricks. Every occupation or workplace has its duffers: schools are no different, but a bad education is not the same as a bad haircut – the consequences remain with a person for life.

It is government’s job to drive up standards and keep a watch on them so that every youngster, regardless of their postcode, can achieve their potential. The First Minister, indeed, has asked to be judged on her record in closing the attainment gap and improving standards across the board. Yet here we are on the verge of strike action.

A clear difference in perception is at work here. Teachers say this dispute is not just about pay, important as it is. They are angry about what they see as an increased workload, cuts, and falling standards. The Scottish Government, meanwhile, continues to insist it is putting money where it is needed and the policy is paying off.

For the parent caught in the middle it is difficult to see the facts for the forest of statistics. Education in Scotland has been politicised to an extent not seen since the Thatcher era. Are standards up or down? Are the statistics to be trusted or not? Are record amounts being invested in education or is it suffering real terms cuts? In most cases, the answer depends on which political party is putting out the press release or which leader bellowing at FMQs.

The picture is not clear, but it should be. Ah, but it is complicated, we are told. There are many different factors in a child’s life that determine how they get on at school, family income often being the most important. One cannot just have league tables of schools. But it should be possible to give straightforward answers as to how a child, and their school, are doing. Private schools manage it.

Something is going wrong in Scotland’s schools, and it cannot all be blamed on Westminster-imposed austerity. If the Scottish Government is as serious as it says about driving up standards, that commitment has to involve paying teachers what they are worth. Not 3 per cent or 10 but something in between. At the same time, make it clear that any further increases are conditional on standards improving.

As for the government’s insistence that it does not have the money, to govern is to choose. In taxation and changes to benefits, the Scottish Government has shown it can make bold choices when it wants. Now would be a good time.