The focus on systems and structures such as setting should be transferred to teaching in the classroom, Brian Boyd, associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, told a conference on differentiation last week at Jordanhill campus.
Dr Boyd, a Labour adviser and long-standing critic of subject setting, was supported by Mary Simpson, head of educational research at the Northern College and the country's leading researcher on teaching strategies.
Both insisted setting, advocated by the Inspectorate in the report Achievement for All, would not raise standards in the upper primary and the first two years of secondary. Research evidence had not proved it was any more successful than other strategies, they affirmed.
Dr Boyd said the report should be entitled "achievement for some at the expense of others" since only the most able would benefit. Even with only two pupils in a class, mixed-ability teaching would operate. It was essential to have a range of approaches for the range of attainments. "We have to be very careful in Achievement for All that when we set up systems that we do not create a climate where young people are destined to fail," he said.
Attitudes to learning and the motivation and self-esteem of the young were probably more important than organisation. The relationship between the teacher and the learner was equally significant and had recently been overlooked.
It was no longer accepted that schools could become effective by making them more efficient under "the cult of managerialism". They could not be turned into Marks and Spencers or "Toyota Motors with zero defects", he said. "Schools are much more complex, much more difficult to get consensus about the aims of education and even more difficult to get a consensus about the function of schooling."
Schools should concentrate on relationships, not just performance indicators and league tables. "We have looked at enough rhetoric on systems and schools and we have got some of the systems pretty slick. Many schools are brilliant at audits and great at producing development plans and maybe we want now to look at the ethos of the classroom," Dr Boyd said.
Pupils' views showed that they repeatedly identified four basic features of effective teaching: * A sense of order and a climate created by the teacher which allows pupils to get on with their work.
* Teachers who are approachable and who pupils can go to without fear of sarcasm or humiliation if they do not understand something.
* A sense of humour.
* Equity and fairness.
Professor Simpson said pupils want a friendly, approachable and knowledgeable adult who can discuss and explain the activity or task they are engaged in. They want to know why they may have problems in understanding or achieving something and reassurance that their knowledge and skills are developing steadily.