The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, invigorated by an increasing membership since local government reform, dismissed Government suggestions of failure in Scottish education but dipped a toe into the contentious waters of staffing and curriculum reorganisation when it met in Dunblane last weekend.
In a show of unanimity, directors backed a call to scrap the promoted post structure in secondaries and to reform the curriculum in the first two years of secondary.
Bob McKay, outgoing president and director in Perth and Kinross, said it was impossible to justify a system geared to teachers and their subjects and not to young people and their learning. Many pupils were disaffected because of it.
However, Mr McKay sought to defend education from "seriously ill informed" critics who were "driven by ideology and assertion rather than facts and analysis". In a thinly disguised condemnation of the Scottish Office, he said central government had created a climate of "blame and mistrust" with unrealistic expectations and a proliferation of initiatives which have dented the morale of teachers and damaged their professionalism.
Mr McKay said that the promotion of setting, as advocated by ministers and HMI in Achievement for All, would mean streaming for smaller secondaries in Perthshire.
The budget crisis facing authorities had also done much to undermine and erode confidence. "There can be no doubt that a financial crisis is upon us and the association has a responsibility to publicly and explicitly bring the consequences to public attention," Mr McKay said.
Local government reform had brought its pluses and minuses. "The concerns over fragmentation, the diseconomies of scale, the diversity of size and lack of effectiveness remain," he said. However, the reorganisation of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities had led to a more "open and accountable" model.
John Travers, incoming president and director in North Ayrshire, accused ministers of meddling in their drive for accountability. "It has reached ludicrous levels when politicians seek to tell teachers how to dress, where there are attempts to dictate centrally how children should be seated and how teachers should teach their subjects," Mr Travers said.
Contrary to critics, schools were making progress. Research this year had shown the level of difficulty of SCE exams had been maintained while statistics underlined the improvements compared with 10 years ago. Seventeen per cent more pupils stay on, the proportion staying on to sixth year has doubled, the percentage with three or more Standard grades has gone up from 50 to 64, the percentage with three or more Highers has gone up from 21 to 29, and the percentage with no qualifications has gone down from 25 to 8.
"This is a system which must be doing something right and a teaching profession which is doing something right," he said.
Mr Travers also praised local authorities for their responsiveness and for retaining the support of schools. "The derisory number who have pursued the opting-out path in spite of more and more outrageous Government incentives to do so is evidence of that," he said.
He further understood the anger of parents and headteachers at the size of capital grants awarded to Scotland's two opted out schools.
Another unwelcome development was the growing decentralisation of local government. Headteachers already enjoyed a managerial and financial freedom that would astonish colleagues in libraries or social work offices. Government strictures on councils to devolve powers to particular areas would "represent an additional tier of management which is quite unnecessary".