Douglas Osler made this a surprisingly central issue when he delivered the first St Andrew's Day lecture at St Andrew's College, by firmly rebuking critics of the vocational emphasis the Government has introduced. The most vocal opponent has been Judith Gillespie, former convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.
Mr Osler said: "Scottish education acquired its high status because of the quality of the preparation for work which it gave to pupils as an essential outcome of learning . . . Scotland has a historical commitment to vocational education. In the past, much of what has come to be called academic was a preparation for vocational work."
The senior chief, who stressed his remarks were personal, suggested that even classics "which must have been the best example of education for education's sake" would have been regarded as vocational because Latin and Greek were essential tools for vocations and because they were believed to offer the core skills necessary to shape trained professional and administrative minds.
Mr Osler acknowledged, however, that forging a smooth relationship between education and work was no longer as easy as it used to because of the varied nature of work, the versatility of the skills required, and disagreement about the values schools should impart.
The main difference between the unfavourable Scottish performance in boosting basic skills compared with countries such as Japan and Malta was a missing sense of purpose, Mr Osler argued. Both these nations, one powerful and one small, make preparation for work a key purpose of education.
Mr Osler said of the Japanese: "They have buildings which are in a similar condition to ours, with a similar supply of resources in most areas other than in technology, where they are on the whole less well supplied. Parents contribute to the cost of resources. There are larger schools and larger classes. They do not have the substantial investment in learning support, nor our elaborate guidance arrangements and generous management structure in secondary schools."
He declared: "We cannot afford to spend so much taxpayers' money on education if the purposes are ill defined or uncertain. There is no future in trying to separate out preparation for life from preparation for work. For the individual, these are too intertwined to be meaningfully separated.
"Even for those without work or without the immediate prospect of work, they must be able to work so I make no apologies for assuming that Learning for Work is for all . . . The individual's needs are the same as those of society and the economy.
"It is no use to society, the economy or the individual to have an education system that does not recognise that interrelationship. That means we must concentrate on maximum attainment for all, on purposeful school ethos and on a powerful message about social and moral values.
He warned: "This is no longer an option - it is a necessity for our country. "
Mr Osler urged that Learning for Work should be moved centre-stage in the curriculum and acknowledged as a central purpose of education. This would require a review of the existing work experience, teacher placement and enterprise education programmes.
But he was careful to add: "All our activities in this regard do not need to be explicitly work related. Preparation for work takes many forms and not all, by any manner of means, are evidently vocational."
The basic "core skills" of reading, computation, information technology, personal effectiveness and problem-solving should be central from the earliest stages. "That is good for work and it is sensible education."
Mr Osler stressed, however, that success in reading and numeracy must come first before teachers embark on the other skills. "All the core skills are important as are all the aspects of our current curriculum but some are impossible without the others," he said.
"In primary schools it would make the job of the primary teacher simpler if we had a clear central purpose of the kind I describe and if the task of the teacher was clear, the learning by the pupil would be more secure."