The conference, on "Getting results in the secondary school", heard from Tony Conroy, head of St Ninian's High in Kirkintilloch, that it used data to encourage pupils, parents and teachers to believe that "things work". An initial concentration on learning rather than teaching had led to improvements, with remarkable strides in closing the gender gap between girls and boys.
"If the focus is on learning, it gets the focus on the youngster and is less threatening for the teacher. To begin with, we concentrated on learning in its widest aspects in raising motivation and self-esteem, using data in a positive way to encourage youngsters and their parents to believe that they could do better and, through that, to encourage the staff that the pupils could do better," Mr Conroy said.
But Hilda De Felice, former head of St Luke's High in Barrhead who is now an educational consultant, warned against over-dependence on data. "There is maybe an emphasis which goes too far and gets into a cycle of measuring what is measurable and not looking at non-quantifiable factors. Things expressed in figures are not necessarily precise."
A prime purpose of education should be to reclaim the large numbers of young people who continue to fail because they are not helped enough, Mrs De Felice said. An essential element in doing this, and in raising standards, is to allow children more say in their own learning.
Ian Smith, of Learning Unlimited, said that in the critical area of pupil motivation there is no single "magic bullet". Mr Smith said: "There are thousands of magic bulets out there - lots of ideas and techniques related to positive discipline and the use of rewards and punishment, positive thinking, and also the area of self-esteem."
Self-esteem was not just important for pupils, he said. "There are so many things that teachers have to balance and there is no right answer that will work with all children. Teachers need self-esteem to get the balancing act right. If you lack self-esteem, you want single answers because you don't want to be unsure."
During the discussion session, two West of Scotland heads cautioned against an over-emphasis on academic success. Frank Corrigan, of Lourdes Secondary in Glasgow, criticised what he called the "input-output model" of the education Bill, which was in danger of neglecting qualities such as independent learning, critical thinking and problem-solving in favour of an academic results which could be measured.
Bob Fawkes, of Park Mains High in Erskine, claimed many schools had "lost the plot" in the use of supported study. "We have moved from a position where supported study was intended to provide support and facilities for pupils who did not have such support at home to a situation where it often equates with extra tutorials for whoever is interested. Some students sacrifice attendance at extracurricular activities such as band practice and sporting activities.
"We want high standards of academic attainment and we want to produce well-rounded young people. These important aims need not be mutually exclusive."
Andrew Cubie, who headed the independent inquiry into student finance, said that the teaching profession should have "a higher esteem of itself". Mr Cubie called on heads to be "less self-effacing" about displaying leadership.