Schools are trapped in a system that owes more to business practice imposed from above than to creative education, according to Professor Sally Brown, deputy principal of Stirling University.
Giving the second General Teaching Council for Scotland lecture in Edinburgh on Tuesday, Professor Brown dismissed the much-lauded consensus in Scottish education as "just another name either for compromise or for direction from the centre". She urged resistance to "simple answers or truths".
In response to questions, Professor Brown said the utilitarian drive for schools to be accountable and deliver targets had completely obscured any attempt to define what education should really be for.
She suggested that, instead of borrowing approaches from business, education should be based on engaging young people with ideas. "This is absolutely essential if we are to encourage lifelong learning and create a learning society. At the moment we simply have a system that insists on getting it right at the time."
Professor Brown, who is professor of education at Stirling University, made clear she was not opposed to schools and teachers being held accountable. But accountability should address two questions: "Are you satisfied with the goals you have achieved and, secondly, were these goals worth achieving in the first place?" She said it was also vitalthat accountability included an input from those being held to account.
In her lecture, she acknowledged that the move away from an emphasis on the content and purposes of teaching towards the business ethic was prompted by a loss of confidence in professionals during the 1980s.
It led to the initiative being seized by central wisdom where "there is no room to contest what society and individuals need, what is to count as an educated person or whether there should be an opportunity for practitioners to contribute to the amendment of official guidance."
She added: "There is, of course, a price to pay for educational purposes prescribed by Government edicts: we lose the teachers' and pupils' stories of real educational contexts."
Professor Brown acknowledged that her preference for treating education as "a conversation about ideas" might be dismissed as pretentious. But the ability of pupils to respond to and disagree with each other was increasingly recognised as a vital skill.
But she warned that an ideas-based system could make teachers feel insecure, although she suggested that the apparent certainties of business approaches were "illusory".
Teachers were ambivalent, however: they resented the certainties involved in being told what to do but felt uncertain if official guidance lacked the fullest of detail.