The controlling tendencies of "paternalistic" local councils have reached "absurd levels" and are stifling debate over key educational issues, one of the country's leading academics has warned.
Walter Humes, visiting professor at the University of Stirling, said the culture was at odds with Curriculum for Excellence, which encouraged teachers to be more autonomous and rely on experience and judgement rather than direction from above.
"Teachers are expected to encourage youngsters to think for themselves, to become responsible citizens and to tell the truth," he told an Accountability Scotland conference at the Scottish Parliament on Monday. "It would appear, however, that teachers themselves are not permitted to respond to public debate if their employers will be embarrassed."
Too many local authorities were "paternalistic and authoritarian in their treatment of staff", Professor Humes added. "They are firmly instructed by their local authorities that they are first and foremost officers of the council and are expected to adopt a corporate mindset."
This ensured that in a small rural community whose school was threatened with closure, the headteacher was "effectively prevented from making a case for (its) retention".
The controlling tendencies of some local authorities could reach "absurd levels", Professor Humes said. One headteacher was warned to refrain from publicly expressing criticism not only of council policy but also of the schools inspectorate.
Words such as "partnership" and "consultation" had become common currency in Scottish education, Professor Humes added, but he viewed this as language designed to placate opposition and obscure the facts. In practice, not all partners had equal clout, and consultation could be "stage-managed" to produce certain results. Scottish public bodies - not only in education - served their own interests, he said.
When the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) or the inspectorate faced complaints about their work, he said, they "adopt the position that (they are) right" rather than properly assess the merits of the criticisms.
This type of culture was causing "able and committed staff (to) become alienated and suffer a loss of morale," Professor Humes said. "Those that rise within the system are not those with ideas and initiative but those that quickly learn the rules of the game and become skilful in politics."
A spokesman for the local authorities body Cosla said: "I do not recognise the picture being painted by Professor Humes about Scottish education. Schools within Scotland do have considerable autonomy, but they also benefit from the support that local authorities can provide. I firmly believe that we have the best of both worlds in Scotland - a winning partnership that can help tackle some of our deep-seated challenges."
John Stuart, depute convener at Accountability Scotland, was also concerned about a lack of checks and balances for the school inspection process. "The principal point is that the school inspectorate has the power to ruin the lives of teachers and disrupt school communities with no independent avenues of complaint or adjudication available to the victims," he said.
Mr Stuart, a retired English and learning support teacher, said the only body able to investigate the inspectorate - the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman - appeared to lack the power to challenge potential "maladministration" by inspectors.
Former SQA examiner Ian Thow complained about the body's "monopoly" on setting and marking examinations. SQA was "not accountable for its errors", he said.
Mr Thow, who has submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament detailing his concerns, called for the formation of an independent regulatory body that could investigate matters pertinent to SQA exam papers.
A spokeswoman for SQA said that all the complaints it received were taken "very seriously" and that it strove to deal with each one "quickly and fairly". On exam arrangements, she explained that they were set by the Scottish Parliament and that it was for ministers to decide whether to make changes.
An Education Scotland spokesman said: "The Scottish system of robust and independent inspection of schools and services follows principles that reflect Scottish government policy and UK Cabinet Office principles on scrutiny improvement.
"At all times during inspections, establishments are made aware of how they can raise concerns about any part of the inspection should they require to do so, including the right for complainants to appeal to an external ombudsman - a right that has been used rarely."