Scottish education was cautioned against "living in a time warp" as anticipation over the creation of a Scottish Parliament mounts.
Lord Sewel said there was a danger of "harping back to 1979 as though the past 17 years hadn't happened".
The Labour peer, who is vice-principal of Aberdeen University, is expected to pilot the legislation creating a Scottish Parliament through the House of Lords if the government changes after the next election. He issued his warnings at a conference in Stirling organised by the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
Delegates were asked to devise all-embracing principles for education under a new-style parliament. However, it quickly became clear that conflicts over the division of power between the Edinburgh legislature, local government and schools could complicate the general consensus on educational values north of the border.
Lord Sewel said Scottish politics had been largely defensive during the Thatcher and Major years, although he noted that the resilience of educational institutions had fought off measures for which there was no support north of the border, such as opting out, interventionist school boards, and local school management.
But he warned that there would be a crunch point even under a different political regime in Scotland since "money for Scottish services will remain tight and there will be no public expenditure free-for-all".
Lord Sewel added that Labour's "tartan tax" so derided by Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth would only raise a maximum of Pounds 450 million if the parliament was allowed to levy 3p in the pound.
Priorities, and therefore painful choices, would inevitably have to be established, he said. As a member of the Accounts Commission which had recently called for an end to inefficient spending on half-empty schools, Lord Sewel asked: "Does it really make sense to spend over Pounds 100m on buildings which are close to being redundant?" But there were disagreements over the limits to parental choice, the relationship between local government and the parliament, and the future management of further education colleges. There was a particular fear among councillors that their powers would be further eroded as the parliament sought to flex its legislative muscles.