Bedfellows are too quick to roll over or say 'yes, but'
Walter Humes, head of educational studies at Glasgow University, said the directorate should take more risks and become more proactive. It must be less cautious and bureaucratic. Directors of education had contributed little to writing about Scottish education.
Dr Humes is the author of The Leadership Class in Scottish Education, which is highly critical of its subjects. He continued with his theme when he addressed last Friday's seminar.
With some senior Government officials also in the audience, Dr Humes attacked what he termed "collusion" with the Scottish Executive which he described as a form of control that the mandarins found comfortable. "Compliance with the few is systematically rewarded at the expense of the many," he said.
A number of directors privately dismissed his comments as those of an academic divorced from the real world. Michael O'Neill, the ADES president, challenged the view that they should not co-operate with the Executive, for example to improve policy changes which were inevitable.
But Dr Humes stuck to his theme that the long-term interests of education authorities were best served by engaging in debate about the substance of policy not just the nuts-and-bolts of implementation. This "no, because" approach was essential if policy was to be soundly based.
He instanced the official rhetoric of ownership and empowerment which he described as being really about "surveillance, policing and control". It had become a new orthodoxy which stifled creativity.
Dr Humes also condemned the handling of staff development which "we have been getting seriously wrong for years". He added: "It is a narrow and instrumental approach in which courses are directly related to policy initiatives. It doesn't encourage analysis or critical thinking. Indeed it penalises critical thinking.
"I have had a number of PhD students who have been passed over for promotion because they have acquired a reputation for critical thinking. This confirms the view I have had for some years now that the prevailing climate in Scottish education is very anti-intellectual."
Dr Humes implied that this had been aided by the directorate's failure to adopt the "no, because" policy and opt instead for the "roll over" or "yes, but" approaches.
The "roll over" response involved embracing every national initiative with enthusiasm. This might win short-term brownie points but risked the long-term danger that the distinction between local and national government would disappear, leaving some to wonder why local government was any longer necessary.
The "yes, but" approach quickly dissolved into a focus on procedures and implementation not on principles, he said. The result was that local authorities did not engage with the substance or content of policy.
Dr Humes said there were some encouraging signs that the quality and managerial systems from the private sector which had so influenced the public services were on the wane.
There was, for example, a growing attack on the "quality industry" in the United States over its obsession with outcomes rather than the processes involved.
Dr Humes also detected a shift in the preoccupation with outcomes such as exam results on this side of the Atlantic, with employers increasingly insisting they want schools to deliver well-rounded young people not just those who can pass exams.