The private sector is "obsessive about education" and keen to become involved, Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of Scottish Business in the Community, told the conference.
Mr Pignatelli said companies were ready to commit resources. "If you can convince employers that Higher Still will supply the right skills, they will pour money in." He had met 300 chairmen and chief executives, all of whom had given a strong commitment to education.
Mr Pignatelli, former director of education of Strathclyde, contrasted the generous finances available in the private sector with those for public services like education. But he also said that business was much more adaptable to change than teachers.
Motorola, the information technology company, for which Mr Pignatelli is a consultant, seeks to turn new software ideas into products in two to three years, whereas the committees that first tried to devise a replacement for Ordinary grade were set up in 1974 and it was 1990 before Standard grade was fully implemented. "Even then the result was an answer in the 1990s to problems that had appeared in the 1960s."
Mr Pignatelli said: "It is not a good message that it takes 15 or 20 years to change the school system." As a result, generations of pupils were being failed.
Graham Donaldson, depute senior chief inspector of schools, said: "We need to embrace change as a system. We tend to look on it as an event rather than as a continuous process. We also need to get better at involving everybody in the profession.
"My own view is that if we had a more systematic process of continuous professional development, with a more natural and symbiotic approach, events like Higher Still wouldn't come as such a shock to the system."
The Sweeney, page 18