THE Cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday provided a good day to bury bad news for Education Secretary John Swinney as he confirmed that the Scottish Government’s flagship Education Bill was to be shelved.

It would be a mistake to underestimate quite how serious this is: not only is education one of the Government’s biggest weak spots, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon even publicly requested that her time and record in office be judged on it. When she appointed a political big hitter like Swinney to the post of Education Secretary two years ago, it was a statement of intent. As recently as September last year, Sturgeon was still promising new legislation on education when she outlined her programme for government.

Problems in Scottish education have been thoroughly and robustly debated in recent years. The attainment gap, which is the gulf in performance between pupils from richer and poorer backgrounds, has been well documented. The end of 2016 provided a notable low point, however, when international figures revealed that Scotland’s standards in maths, reading and science were classed as average, which represented further decline. It was disastrous news for the Scottish Government, and demoralising for the nation. It felt like something of a rock bottom; it was painful to have confirmation of such a falling performance, and it intensified fears about the future of Scotland’s children.

However, much of the Government’s proposed solutions in recent years for improving matters have been met with dismay. Take standardised testing, for instance. The measure was introduced last year in an effort to assess pupil performance in numeracy and literacy, and mostly tests primary school children. However, critics fear that it could cause undue pressure on pupils and introduce a mood of short-term competition between schools rather than a focus on long term development, despite promises from Swinney that school-by-school data would not be published.

A key part of the currently ditched Education Bill was to give far more power to headteachers over teacher recruitment and budgets instead of local authorities. Again, the Government was met with a barrage of concerns. Teaching union the EIS called for a period of “stability and consolidation” and more support for teachers and schools following the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence in 2010. The programme was developed after a consultation in 2002, and new qualifications were later introduced to work more comfortably alongside it. This was a big change to the delivery of education, and the prospect of further dramatic changes after such a short time, at a point where schools are already under substantial pressure, was met with grave warnings by many in the sector.

But the Government wasn’t entirely without support. The Scottish Conservatives became the only party willing to get on board with it in principle – the prospect of transferring control from local government directly to schools is more ideologically in tune with the Tories’ way of thinking – which was never a comfortable position for the SNP. When the SNP is battering the Tories at Westminster at every opportunity, it was always going to be politically problematic to rely on the party in Scotland to get through its flagship education reforms. If Sturgeon’s legacy is resting on education, it’s unlikely she’d be keen on thanking the Tories for helping to shape it.

And so here we are. Swinney hopes the public will believe that the Government doesn’t really need the legislation anymore because he’s had a word with local authorities and they’ve decided between them that they can just “fast track” a number of changes without the need for all that parliamentary time wasting. That’s only credible if he really expects people to believe that Sturgeon installed one of her top people in one of the most important roles of her Government only in order to have a word with local councils.

What it really means is that the Government, at least to some extent, is going back to the drawing board. While this is politically humiliating, it will be met with a sigh of relief from campaigners and others opposed to the approach, who will now hope that the Scottish Government has a radical rethink about how to fix its education nightmare.

But it’s halfway through 2018 and the Scottish Parliament goes into recess this week. Time is running out for the SNP to demonstrate enough visible progress in education before the next Scottish elections, and make no mistake: if Nicola Sturgeon wants to be judged on education, her opponents at the ballot box will be relentless in attacking her over a failure to deliver results.

So it was interesting, this week, to see Sturgeon make such sweeping changes to her Cabinet while Swinney tried to quietly retire one of the biggest legislative priorities of the Government. It’s not only in education that Sturgeon’s Government has problems; the now former health secretary Shona Robison, for example, had been tipped for some time to be on the way out following criticisms of NHS performance. She’ll be replaced by Jeane Freeman, a rising star of the party who was previously trusted with the social security brief despite only being elected in 2016. Indeed, it was a good day for rising stars, including big names like Humza Yousaf, who found themselves promoted.

Sturgeon may be hoping that a shake up of the Cabinet will play well for the party as it gears up for Brexit and the next Scottish elections in 2021, although it did come as a surprise to see the newly elected deputy leader of the party, Keith Brown, leave his post as Economy Secretary – it seems peculiar, despite the official line that he needs to focus his efforts on party business.

Swinney, however, remains in his brief. To move him out of education, effectively admitting a massive failure, would have been unthinkable. It would have been humiliating for the Government, and it would have caused real damage to Sturgeon’s leadership.

The SNP hierarchy may be hoping they get away with their big education climb down, but it’s an open goal for the opposition unless the Government can pull something amazing out of the bag in a short time. If not, Sturgeon’s 2015 plea to be judged on education may severely haunt her at the ballot box. Be careful what you wish for.