Finland gives Peacock a lead
Political favourites such as opting out, wider choice, streaming and grouping, more rigorous testing and league tables are not the way to produce higher standards, international speakers told the annual Edinburgh Conference last Friday.
The key, other countries agreed, lay in handing back responsibility and decision-making to teachers and giving them the space to practise their craft in the classroom. Peter Peacock, Education Minister, concurred.
Mr Peacock pledged, within an accountable system, to lessen the centralised, rigid approach that had dominated Scottish education and allow teachers to demonstrate their professionalism. "We are on the move to decentralise decisions," Mr Peacock stressed.
He had dropped 5-14 testing in its old form and the publication of results because of the "distorting" effect on the quality of learning. More pupils may have made the targets but that did not necessarily mean higher standards.
The alternative Assessment is for Learning programme was returning trust to teachers to make professional judgments about pupil progress. Similarly, Scotland was leading the way in continuing professional development which enhanced teachers' skills.
Mr Peacock said collecting data was important, but at school level.
"Schools should be saying: 'Why is it that my performance is distinctly different from an exactly similar-sized school in a very similar community? What accounts for the differences and how can I improve my practice to change the outcome for my kids?' It's about using those tools for self-evaluation," he said.
His views about the curriculum and testing were confirmed by his visit to Finland, which regularly comes top of educational league tables in the western world.
"If you look at Finnish guidance on the curriculum, they have thin volumes.
In Finland, they talk about a national curriculum and a local curriculum.
The national curriculum sets a broad framework and overall priorities but teachers have space to make decisions on a local curriculum and practise their professional craft," he said.
Scottish teachers had to recover their lost status and giving them power over their profession was fundamental, Mr Peacock said.
Reijo Laukkanen, from the Finnish National Board for Education, confirmed that "the empowerment of the teaching profession produces good results".
But Mr Laukkanen also reinforced belief in an entirely comprehensive system that supported weaker students, aimed for high standards for all and shunned what he called "homogeneous ability groups".
Testing was kept for largely internal purposes and there was no inspection system. "Inspection is control and high-stakes testing is control," he said.
Ireland shared views about the value of empowering teachers, which had been significant in underwriting the progress of the "Celtic Tiger".
Eamon Stack, chief inspector at the department for education in Dublin, said: "How you regard teachers in the system is key and in Ireland the teaching profession continues to attract talented and committed people to its ranks. Teaching is held in almost higher regard than it was 20 years ago. It's quite extraordinary.
"As recent OECD work on attracting and retaining teachers shows, we are beginning to realise more and more the importance of the quality of teaching."
Ireland had dropped league tables in 1998 and there was no political drive to return to them "because league tables, like testing, can have a backwash effect and create more problems".
Mr Stack said: "Education is a relationship, not a product. We have very little testing in a formal sense. Testing is for learning and not about the accountability of teachers. That is the key message and all sorts of baggage comes with testing."
He added: "We are not big on testing and weighing the pig every day is not how the pig gets fatter."
It was misplaced to "inspect quality into the system"; rather it had to come from within.
Curiously, Denmark was moving towards more testing and more accountability, Torben Kornbech Rasmussen, chair of the OECD education committee, said.
More than 17 per cent of Danish pupils left secondary school unable to read and 20 per cent dropped out of education and training after leaving.