"Dumbing down" is not an inevitable consequence of pursuing equality among schools - and the most successful countries in terms of secondary school performance are those which invest in and devolve responsibility to teachers, Neil Munro writes.
These were the main messages from the man behind the international student assessment programme (Pisa) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - music to the ears of the Educational Institute of Scotland which invited Andreas Schleicher to address its conference on assessment last Saturday.
Finland, Korea and Canada are examples of secondary school systems which have shown that "levelling up" is possible, Mr Schleicher said, describing them as "high quality, high equity" countries.
"The results of our study are unsettling for many governments which talk a lot about equity but find they are not delivering it, and that their institutional structures are part of the problem," he said.
Finland, the top-performing nation among 43 countries in the 2000 Pisa study of reading, maths and scientific literacy among 15-year-olds, had small central departments which located almost all responsibility at school level.
The study placed the UK seventh in reading, eighth in maths and fourth in science. The Scottish results, involving 2,500 students in 99 secondary schools, will be published next month.
Mr Schleicher said there was a link between high expenditure and high performance - but it was not guaranteed. The UK and Scotland are examples of countries where there are better results than would be expected from their expenditure - a comment that drew ironic laughter. "School climate seems to make more of a difference than resources," he suggested.
According to Mr Schleicher, the lessons from the top-performing countries in the Pisa study are that they have: a strong culture of achievement; decentralised decision-making; advanced evaluation systems; schools with a lot of autonomy; and professional development which is not just an "add-on".
Giving more responsibility to schools did not lead to wider disparities in performance. "In Finland, the most successful and one of the most decentralised countries, the first question their education ministry asks when our results come out is: where have we failed? They then act accordingly which they are able to do because they have good quality information from assessment."
The result is that Finland has only a 1 per cent variation in reading performance between schools, against 7 per cent in the UK and 22 per cent in Germany.
Mr Schleicher said high aspirations and a culture of achievement are not the same as pressure to achieve. In successful countries, it is about whether students feel supported by their teachers. "Many countries have a strong pressure to achieve like my own, Germany, but there is little support."
Countries such as Finland and Sweden also allow teachers the time to discuss performance and progress with parents and pupils.
Support for teachers is vital, Mr Schleicher declared. "One way of measuring the effectiveness of assessment is the extent to which it contributes to support for schools and to the professional development of teachers."