Education authorities will only be able to navigate the approaching financial storms if they start ceding authority over many of the services they are used to running, Scotland's education directors have been warned.
Huge pressure on local authority budgets was "the new reality" and demanded dramatic changes, said Anton Florek, chief executive of the Virtual Staff College, the professional development organisation for education directors and child services in Scotland, England and Wales. "The default position of leadership should be ceding power, not holding on to it," he said.
Mr Florek is based in England and said that the extreme financial pressures already seen south of the border were only just coming to Scotland. He advised Scottish education directors to learn from Wigan Council's "The Deal", whereby the council pledged to protect front-line services and keep council tax bills down if citizens volunteered to do more in their communities.
"It's fundamentally about stepping out of the service-centric role," Mr Florek said last week at the annual conference of education directors' body ADES. "The model is going to be for councils to become orchestrators.involved in bobbing and weaving, making things happen, giving permissions."
ADES president John Fyffe told the audience at Cumbernauld that there had been a "lack of coherence in the system" and insufficient efforts to pool the work of local and national bodies.
This month, the association published a paper entitled A 2020 Vision for Education in Scotland. It calls for the education system to become "more agile" and for the creation of a "national performance framework" to "allow for local innovation".
In one of his last acts as education secretary, Michael Russell welcomed education directors' willingness to innovate, but warned that they should not resort to cutting teaching jobs or closing schools. He was also sceptical about raising the school starting age, an idea floated in recent weeks.
"I don't want simplistic solutions, I don't want knee-jerk solutions, I want imaginative solutions," Mr Russell said, adding that local authorities should be more transparent about how they made decisions.
He was more enthusiastic about clusters of schools coming together to share ideas and the "de-layering of educational administration". He suggested that local quality assurance could be scaled back and left to Education Scotland.
"The more ideas we have, the more experimentation that's done, the happier I will be," he said, hours before it was announced that he was to be replaced by Angela Constance in the Cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Russell told delegates at the ADES conference that they should beware the growing calls for more competition in education - epitomised by a recent pamphlet published by the Scottish Conservatives - as this could lead to privatisation.
But according to Mr Florek, fundamental change could not be avoided. "My personal belief is that what is touted as [economic] recovery in the UK currently is bunkum," he said.
Mr Florek argued that the new norm for public services was "radically different" and could be summed up by the concept adopted by the US Army under the acronym Vuca: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
In the past, he said, "[the army] turned up with a shedload of kit, then they kicked ass and they went home". However, complex conflicts such as the one taking place in Afghanistan had demanded more sophisticated approaches to leadership, rather than just being "bigger and better than anyone else".
Mr Florek advised that Scotland's education directors now had to stop "faffing around" and "get used to the fact that you're doing a lot less, for less, in the next five years".