Professor Andy Hargreaves, an educationalist based at Boston College in the United States, said England’s system was obsessed with testing children “almost to destruction”.
He addressed the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow last week and told Scotland on Sunday that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), if implemented properly, would widen the gap between Scotland and England and allow the former to move towards standards set in places such as Canada, Finland and Singapore.
His views provide a vote of confidence for the Scottish Government’s flagship education policy, which has divided opinion since its launch. However, his claims were fiercely contested by one former headteacher, who said his assessment was “nonsense”.
First introduced into Scottish schools in 2010, CfE is being further cemented with the introduction of new exams next year.
CfE promises a revolution in education by handing more power to teachers to shape their lessons. However, critics have accused it of lacking rigour, with pupils not formally tested through external assessments until fourth year. The brightest pupils, who can now begin studying for their Highers in S4 under the new system, could be in fifth year before sitting an exam.
Hargreaves said: “On most indicators, Scotland does better than England and Northern Ireland but by just a few points. However, what CfE is trying to do is both catch up with the best in the world and even lead the pack.
“The great strength of CfE is that it encourages innovation in learning and discretion for teachers, which is quite different from south of the Border, where teachers have become very constrained by testing.
“If you want kids to be innovative, then teachers have to be innovative as well. CfE creates the formula for that.
“Where it’s less clear is how you get consistency. When you let the leash off, some teachers will do very well and others will struggle. The big question for CfE is how teachers will work together, how schools will work together and, in particular, how local authorities will work together. The English route is not getting any improvements – that’s really clear. There’s no high-performing system in the world that tests its children almost to destruction every year.
“Scotland already does slightly better than England. If CfE is implemented effectively, and that’s the key phrase, then within ten years you would expect to see Scotland moving [further] ahead.”
But Carole Ford, retired head of Kilmarnock Academy and former president of School Leaders Scotland, said CfE was being undermined by the lack of external assessment.
Commenting on Hargreaves’ views, she said: “It’s just nonsense. The main problem is that there’s no external assessment whatsoever in the primary sector. Teachers know their kids, and don’t like marking them down. They know how hard little Jimmy has worked. Internal assessments are just not reliable – we don’t trust driving instructors to say this person can drive.
“The early years of education are now being left to chance. What we now have is a system with no accountability for years and years – and he [Hargreaves] is saying that will produce better results?
“It’s completely contrary to human behaviour to say people will do better if you don’t assess them. I feel really sorry for young people now because they’re in the lap of the gods.”
Earlier this week, the Scottish Government said it had decided to call in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to evaluate the curriculum.
The only previous academic study into it, by Stirling University, found significant variation across schools and identified teacher concerns about growing workload, a lack of time for preparation and “vague” national guidelines.
OECD officials will publish a report in 2015.
Education secretary Mike Russell said: “Such a strong international endorsement of Curriculum for Excellence shows we are moving in the right direction.
“Increasingly, we will see a new generation of young people who are successful, effective, confident and responsible citizens, aided by an education system focused on ensuring they are ready to succeed in the next stage of their life, be it work, training or a further phase of education.”