Secondaries may have done as much as they can to lift exam performance and may have to consider more radical options for improving learning.
John West-Burnham, senior research adviser with the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham, told the Headteachers' Association of Scotland's annual conference in St Andrews that results across western Europe had appeared to plateau after steady incremental improvements - a feature of Scottish exam performance, especially at Higher level.
"Sometimes the whole school improvement movement in the past 20 years has been like pushing a car up a hill - the first few yards are quite fun and relatively easy but the farther you get up the hill, the harder the work becomes," Professor West-Burnham said.
Schools were reaching the point where it was almost impossible to raise attainment. "Holding it still is seen to be a virtue and it is becoming difficult to move significantly forward. Doing more of the same but harder does not seem to work," he said.
Professor West-Burnham forecast that within 10 years a third of current teachers will have retired and fundamental questions would be asked about the sustainability of secondaries as 19th century constructs. "The essential western European and North American curriculum was laid down in the 1860s and has changed very little since then. It may be time for a radical reconfiguration," he said.
"We are very confident about teaching and the curriculum but I am not so sure we have the same level of confidence about children's learning."
It may take something radical if United Kingdom countries are to match the 70 per cent higher education entry figure in Finland.
Professor West-Burnham said it was bizarre that schools were based on the model of intelligence devised by Sir Cyril Burt, the now discredited psychologist who died in 1971. "He is best described scientifically as a liar, cheat, fraud and charlatan," he stated.
Research on the brain showed that teachers had to be good at stimulating neural processes, as understanding about how people learn changes education. It was clear, for example, that learning modern languages was most effective before the age of seven yet schools still taught them as secondary subjects.
Professor West-Burnham also asserted that schools continued to struggle with new technology and had yet to embrace it. Most classroom experiences were little more than "posh typewriting". Studies in England had shown that 63 per cent of pupils said their dominant classroom activity was copying, or replicating information, from a blackboard or whiteboard.
In the outside world, it was suggested that 70 per cent of all work done involved ICT. "Surely we must begin the process of having 70 per cent of all learning in schools having some form of ICT because it makes pupils'
lives better and teachers' jobs easier," he said.
Such a move would inevitably lead to new forms of assessment and exam systems.
Professor West-Burnham also challenged age barriers that had little relationship to how and when people learn. Adults did not sit their driving test or get married at the same time.
Schools were continually asked to improve exam results but poverty and lack of social capital had powerful effects on pupil attitudes and performance.
"It may be that schools cannot go on trying to compensate for that in the 15 per cent of the year that they work with young people," he said.