Doing the sums at first minister's questions

Try this question:

Box A weighs 5.907 kg, box B weighs 4.329 kg and box C weighs 1.002 kg. What is the total weight of the three boxes?

OK, how about this one?

A businessman buys mobile phones for sale in his shop. Each mobile phone costs him £36. He wants to make a profit of 37.5% What price will he have to sell the phones to make 37.5% profit?

These are both sample questions from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN).

How did you do? More to the point, how did Scottish pupils in S2 get on?

Not all that wonderfully, as it happens.

This issue was duly raised during questions to the first minister by Labour's Johann Lamont and then by Ruth Davidson of the Tories.

How did Alex Salmond cope with this onslaught?

Rather well, as it happens.

It was a staunch, sustained attack by Ms Lamont - but successfully deflected by Mr Salmond.

Indeed, to borrow a phrase used by Ms Davidson in a different context, the first minister was "magisterially dismissive".

(Ms Davidson was referring to Education Secretary Michael Russell. Both Mr Salmond and Mr Russell have made flourishing careers out of being magisterial, if not always dismissive.)

In response to Ms Lamont, Mr Salmond offered sundry replies. Yes, the numeracy performance in S2 was a "challenge". (Wonderful word, isn't it? All encompassing.)

But the S2 test was en route to S3 outcomes - so there was time to make up. The Curriculum for Excellence, with its focus on sums, would help address the "challenge".

And just look at the results in primary schools, when P4 and P7 kids were tested. Top of the class - largely, he argued, because of CfE.

Fancy a P4 question, just for fun? Here you go then.

Sam buys two pens. She pays with four 20p coins and she is given 10p change. What did one pen cost?

Ms Lamont was not impressed. It was too early to credit CfE. Instead, the SNP should take the blame for falling short on a series of educational promises.

And then she stumbled. Just a little - but enough.

She got some of the promises wrong - suggesting, for example, that our offspring were due two hours of physical education each day. (What? Are they training for the Olympics? The target is two hours per week.)

Mr Salmond had already been in fine form. Now he saw his chance. He suggested drily that Ms Lamont might care to address her own apparent problems with numeracy before fretting about the nation's youth.

To Ms Davidson, he deployed the same combination of statistics, argument and drollery. Invited by the Tory leader to "get on top of the education secretary", he primly declined - while Mr Russell shifted uneasily in his seat.

I know, I know, it is of zero import to those parents worried about their kids' arithmetic.

The 'Salmond Six'

But, on the day, in the chamber, it was effective. And one can be sure that Mr Salmond would focus solely upon the empathetic aspects of his argument when confronted with said parents.

This was also Willie Rennie's week. He only gets a shottie once a fortnight because of the sparsity of the Lib Dem benches.

No numerical problems there: he can count them on one hand.

But Mr Rennie had an arithmetical query of his own. What, he said, had happened to the Salmond Six: the list of demands posed by the FM to strengthen the Scotland Bill?

They had vanished, magisterially dismissed by the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore. And yet, to Mr Rennie's puzzlement, the Scottish government had still signed up to the bill.

Potentially a tricky one for Mr Salmond.

His government had indeed agreed to the bill, having previously excoriated it; calculating politically that the constitutional debate has moved onto fresh ground.

But, with deft debating skill, Mr Salmond turned the issue around into a challenge to Mr Rennie.

The Lib Dems, he said, had backed much of the Salmond Six, such as devolution of the Crown Estates. So, he concluded with a broad grin, Mr Rennie was claiming triumph - for securing the exclusion of LibDem policy from the bill.

If MSPs were tested for chutzpah, the FM would fairly push the class average up a bit.