Schools need to reassert the importance of classroom teaching and how children learn following the recent political focus on structures, accountability and the 5-14 curriculum, 140 Edinburgh nursery, primary and special headteachers were advised on Tuesday.
Cameron Harrison, chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, and Bart McGettrick, principal of St Andrew's College, won warm approval for their renewed emphasis on heads' core responsibilities to children's learning.
Mr Harrison said: "We have been in danger of losing sight of the fact that the most important thing that happens in schools is teaching. Even teachers begin to wonder what they are there for at times when they are required to fill in the latest audit for this or that."
It was vital for teachers and teaching to be the central concern of education. "How you teach is as important as what you are trying to teach and the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in the quality of education," Mr Harrison said.
Research had shown that teaching was complex, difficult and challenging and required substantial intellectual effort. Children needed to be valued, cherished and stimulated.
Never the less, Mr Harrison defended the changes in structures. Prior to the 5-14 framework, he would not have been confident about the range of teaching in primaries, such as the time devoted to technology, science or the expressive arts, although he would have been more confident of quality teaching in classrooms.
Professor McGettrick struck a similar note, calling for personal and social development of all pupils to be at the heart of teachers' concerns. "The child who is recognised and acknowledged is the child who will try to achieve. The child has a right to the professional love of the teacher because the teacher who cares for personal and social development is the teacher who will hope that child aims high and achieves most," he said.
Teachers should smile more at children, recognise them as human beings and give them a sense of importance. Headteachers might also smile more at their staff.
Professor McGettrick said pupils had to be able to learn more than facts which, given the pace of change, would be outdated quickly. "Ninety per cent of what we currently know will be out of date in seven years and 90 per cent of what we need to know in seven years is currently not known by anyone. There is considerable and colossal change and we have got to learn how to learn new things," he said.
The emphasis on the market-place in education and the creation of an enterprise society through schools was roundly condemned. "So much hooey is spoken about ways in which we have to promote an enterprising culture," Professor McGettrick said.
He added: "We live in an educational climate where two cultures compete with each other. There is the culture of accountability, where measurements can be made and where we make things as efficient as possible and where you do as well as you can in league tables, and teachers' culture. Most teachers did not come into the world of education because they wanted to be in the top half of a league table."
Elizabeth Maginnis, the city's education convener, told heads she would do everything possible to defend education spending. "I will be telling others I do not think schools can take another 2 per cent cut," Mrs Maginnis said to applause.
Spending on nursery, primary and special education had risen at the expense of community education, secondary schools and cuts in administration. There was a genuine political commitment to early education, highlighted by the continued availability of pre-school places and the focus on early intervention schemes.
"If you do not invest in the essential building blocks, all the rest totters, " Mrs Maginnis said.