A vision of a radical alternative to local authority management of education, and the role of central staff such as advisers, was outlined to the conference by Maggi Allan, executive director of education in South Lanarkshire. Mrs Allan admitted it would "unsettle the landscape".
Despite South Lanarkshire receiving one of the top HMIE reports, Mrs Allan said that was precisely one of the reasons for a major restructuring because the inspectors' accolade had given the authority confidence that it could take on a new challenge. "Unless you are prepared to take some risks, you won't secure improvement," she said.
Mrs Allan, who will step down at the end of the month as Scotland's longest serving director of education, outlined her reasons for deciding to slim down the centre of her department and redeploy staff across 17 new learning communities.
In South Lanarkshire, each learning community is to be a cluster defined by the secondary school and will include primary schools, early years establishments, partner nurseries and special needs establishments. It will also involve library and community learning services.
South Lanarkshire has replaced its previous centralised structure, based around challenge and support officers and teams of advisers, with 17 decentralised teams each headed by the equivalent of a head of service.
Those remaining at the centre will focus more on quality assurance and less on operational matters.
Among the "drivers for change" were:
* The P6-S2 transition, particularly for youngsters with literacy and numeracy problems who were finding it hard to absorb new language forms as they moved from subject to subject in secondary; some were still operating at level B or even A.
* Structural barriers across schools and a mismatch of practice across schools.
* Schools turning the distribution of funding for different initiatives into a "bun fight" instead of operating on collegiate principles.
* Schools squabbling over teachers in the permanent supply pool who were not required for cover and a concern that it was "she who shouts loudest" who was getting the largest slice of the cake.
* The findings of the report on Time for Teaching from HMIE and the Accounts Commission which showed that teachers in senior promoted posts were spending too much time on low grade administrative duties and not enough on teaching.
* Her experience, while a member of the Beattie committee on special needs, that parents, young people and their carers were facing huge frustrations because they had to deal with too many external agencies which were not co-ordinating their efforts.
A co-ordinated support service will be a key feature of each learning community, Mrs Allan said, involving all support service workers, clerical workers, special needs and classroom assistants, and technicians. A post equivalent to that of a depute head will be responsible for 3-18 management and pupil support services, engaging with external agencies in delivering an integrated service.
Mrs Allan hoped this would lead to greater coherence, continuity and progression in pupils' learning. In addition, there should be greater consistency, better deployment of resources and improved leadership.
South Lanarkshire's director described her discussions with headteachers over their concerns that these reforms would mean they had less autonomy and control as "interesting".
"We have been telling them to work in more collegiate ways," Mrs Allan commented. "This is about spreading resources throughout the learning community. There is no point in having a head of a learning community who doesn't have clout, and that means having budgets."