THERE are always two sides to statistics. Living in a peripheral place, I am for example wary of press releases which tell me proudly that “90 per cent of Scotland” will be covered by such-and-such. OK, I think. But that means ten per cent won’t be – and guess where!

Yesterday’s Herald story about the state of Scotland’s school buildings is an example of the genre. It reported that the proportion of pupils in buildings rated “poor” or “bad” for their ability to support quality learning and teaching jumped to 11.4 per cent, the first rise since 2016.

The obvious corollary, which the Scottish Government was boasting about recently, is that 88.6 per cent are not being taught in buildings rated “poor” or “bad”. However, to revert to my original point, that is of scant consolation to over 80,000 pupils who constitute the 11.4 per cent.

Both statistics are true but which is more significant? I guess that depends on the political, as well as personal, vantage point from which you are viewing them. As one who believes in credit where it is due, I applaud the progress made while also taking a nostalgic interest in how it has been arrived at.

Back in 1997, when I became Scottish Education Minister, pre-devolution, one of the most urgent challenges we faced was the dire condition of the school estate. The backlog was horrendous and if we had relied on traditional means of funding through council budgets, it would have stretched into infinity. Some would still be waiting.

To meet this challenge, we adopted a version of Public Private Partnership which took the school building programme off balance sheet, drew in private capital and transferred maintenance to the consortia which entered into these deals. With remarkable speed, the fabric of Scotland’s schools began to be transformed.

The first ones were in Falkirk district in places like Bo’ness and Larbert, working-class communities which would otherwise have been waiting years to benefit from what became instantly achievable. Donald Dewar handed over the keys at the first completed, Graeme High School, two months before he died.

Glasgow and others soon followed, putting the urgent needs of pupils in front of half-baked ideological hang-ups. Over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of children have been educated in modern, well-maintained schools because of that decision in 1997. I wonder how many of them would now condemn it, even if they had a clue about the history?

The SNP’s education spokesperson at that time was one, Nicola Sturgeon, who – of course – denounced the involvement of private finance. “State schools are built for the benefit of children and local communities”, she wrote piously in The Herald. “and for many it is hard to accept that in future they may serve to line the pockets of private developers”.

Ms Sturgeon seemed to believe there had hitherto been a golden age when private companies built schools in the interests of philanthropy. The reality was that time and again, schools and other public buildings were shoddily constructed for maximisation of profit, leaving local authorities to pick up the tab for decades thereafter. On all fronts, ongoing “partnership” was progress.

For years, the SNP made a meal out of denouncing the wickedness of using private funding to secure public infrastructure. When they gained control of Holyrood, their conversion was instant and miraculous. Ever since, most of what is built for the public sector in Scotland – roads, hospitals, schools – has used one version or another of Public Private Partnerships.

A briefing paper provided by the Scottish Parliament’s research centre described the position in 2019: “Some schools were funded directly from capital budgets, but many used Public Private Partnerships. Arrangements include the UK Government’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the Scottish Government’s NPD model and the Scottish Government’s hub programme.

“Under these schemes, upfront construction costs are met by private contractors and the public sector partners then pay ‘unitary charges’ for the duration of the contract period, usually 25 years. These cover the construction costs of the school as well as ongoing maintenance costs and interest charges.

“In Scotland, more than 300 schools have been built or refurbished using ‘revenue financing’ schemes and a total of £12.2 billion in unitary charges remains to be paid to the private sector contractors for these schools over the next 25 years. These charges are paid jointly by the Scottish Government and local authorities, with the exact shares varying between projects”.

Correct me if I’m wrong but that sounds remarkably like what Ms Sturgeon so vehemently condemned in 1997. Of course, the value obtained from each deal depends on the quality of negotiations. Some aspects of the SNP’s use of private money to fund infrastructure have been criticised by the Accounts Commission, just like some of the early PPPs.

But the principle is what matters and that is where I welcome the SNP’s intellectual flexibility – I prefer that term to “hypocrisy”. What counts most is that hundreds of schools have continued to be built or modernised under conditions they were once so eager to condemn, so let’s be generous.

It is also fair to point out that the methodology for funding school building in Scotland has recently changed. Under the Learning Estate Investment Programme, capital costs are shared between the Scottish Government and local authorities. Private firms are again just the builders. Which is fine – so long as the Scottish Government and local authorities have the money to pay them.

It has been an interesting ideological journey from which the abiding lesson is that what matters most is what works. For the sake of a generation of children who have learned in good quality environments, I’m glad that 25 years ago I helped kick off that journey by facing down the ideologues – not least, those who became converts.

But let’s keep an eye on that 11.4 per cent. If it keeps rising rather than falling, it will be time for another urgent re-think, because it’s still the children who matter, not the politicians.