NICOLA Sturgeon isn’t one to get het up. She sails unruffled through even the most torrid exchanges in the Holyrood chamber. Some weeks, she seems so calm you half expect her to put her feet up while Patrick Harvie is speaking and idly fashion paper planes out of her briefing notes.

But that famous composure is being sorely tested by the seemingly endless trouble emanating from one ministerial brief: schools. Since the First Minister declared education to be her number one priority, hardly a day has gone by when her words haven’t been lobbed back at her.

Scotland’s drop down the world rankings for science, maths and reading; the fall in literacy and numeracy rates; the stubborn attainment gap between the wealthy and the deprived; young staff abandoning the profession; vacancies going unfilled; teacher morale so low it’ll take dredging gear to raise it; opposition from parents’ groups, unions and parliament to P1 testing; and an education bill shelved for lack of support inside and outside parliament: that’s the sort of record that, replicated at a health board, would have ministers threatening special measures.

And then there has been the stramash over teacher pay. Naturally, there are valid arguments on both sides, the EIS citing a 20% erosion of pay in a decade and the need for a hefty uplift to make teaching attractive again; the Scottish Government insisting it can’t afford a 10% up-front pay rise and that it wouldn’t be fair on other public sector workers in any case.

But instead of resolving this through discussion, the two sides have become more entrenched since the summer, to the point that two miles-worth of disgruntled teachers marched through Glasgow’s streets in October – not the kind of placard-waving SNP ministers like to see on the front pages – while education secretary John Swinney stoked union anger by joining Cosla in writing directly to teachers about the pay offer. As the threat of strike action has loomed ever larger, so has the potential for serious political damage to Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues.

But while this issue is critical for SNP ministers, who are under colossal pressure to prove they are committed to the “day job” of running public services effectively, and not just plotting for independence in some St Andrew’s House dungeon, it’s not just the reputation of the SNP that’s tied up with this mess; it’s the ethos of devolution itself.

Rewind 17 years and boosting the pay, conditions and status of teachers was one of Holyrood’s big early successes. The McCrone deal increased teacher pay by 23% over three years and sought to ensure teachers worked no more than 35 hours a week, in return for more flexible working – moves designed to give teaching the same status as law and other professions after years of neglect by an unsympathetic Westminster Tory government. The McCrone deal was held up alongside free personal care as justifying voters’ faith in the devolution project.

The symbolism of these measures was hugely significant: they showed that modern Scotland had arrived as a confident nation in its own right, one that was asserting its progressive values and embarking on a new era in which government and public sector workers collaborated in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

And yet here we are, all these years later, with a beefed up Scottish Parliament in possession of far greater powers than Scotland’s original First Minister Donald Dewar ever envisioned, but with a conflict between ministers and teaching unions that would probably have reminded him of the Thatcher era. And that is no exaggeration: there hasn’t been a national teacher-led strike over pay in Scotland since the 1980s. Union leaders are even said to have discussed in private the 1980s tactic of targeting key ministers’ constituencies with school closures.

Talks are going on this week which may resolve the impasse, or may not: either way, things should never have got this far.

It isn’t just the dispute with teachers over pay that seems out of keeping with the Scottish Government’s preferred way of doing business. No minister wants to have to withdraw a bill, as Mr Swinney did this summer, so how did it get so far without stakeholder support?

What happened to the devolution ideal of finding Scottish solutions to Scottish problems? What happened to the notion that if you bring government closer to the people, then politicians will be more accountable and government more responsive; that the people will feel ownership of their parliament, the boundaries between government and civil society will blur, and politicians will work more closely with diverse interest groups to find sensible resolutions to the challenges of the day? Were we daft to believe it?

No, we weren’t – Scottish voters record much higher levels of satisfaction with their devolved government than they do with Westminster, and Holyrood has repeatedly shown itself to be more responsive and progressive than Westminster – but what all this shows is that constitutional change alone has limited capacity to sort out social and economic problems. While it brings politicians closer to those they serve, devolution itself cannot solve problems. It takes people to do that.

Scottish education is still a matter of great national pride. Schools are still delivering impressive exam results, though they have suffered, along with other public services, from having less spent on them than they need. Curriculum for Excellence was a welcome reform that modernised the way children are taught, but such a big change was bound to be challenging for teachers especially at a time of austerity.

As for the attainment gap, it is a problem in other industrialised countries besides Scotland, and tackling it is not straightforward. Ministers can’t do that without better data but can’t get the data without stirring up old controversies about testing.

Yet even with all the caveats, the problems facing Scottish education are real and troubling.

Taking the optimistic view, the problems can all be solved, but it will take trust and goodwill between politicians, civil servants, teachers, unions and parents, who must all play their part. No government ever transformed a public service while locked in dispute with key stakeholders. It’s time to remember devolution’s founding ideal – close collaboration in pursuit of a common goal – otherwise, what has it all been for?