Are we at a turning point or a tipping point? With a general election less than a year away will the reforms that have swept through state schools over the last four years endure and become embedded? Or is there opportunity to take a different path and for alternative arguments to prevail?
These questions were posed by the writer and journalist Fiona Millar in her introduction to the latest in a series of events held as part of the Great Education Debate launched last September by the Association for School and College Leaders.
"The general election presents an opportunity to be ready with alternative arguments," she told teachers, school leaders and education campaigners at the event hosted by the National Education Trust.
"Looking at system-wide leadership, schools are going to have to see the latest wave of change roll through from September but in the longer term let's hope it might be possible to get to a position with politicians where we can look at a 10-year strategy, decide what the best thing to do is and roll it out over that time."
The desire for long-term thinking and planning based on a shared mission and an agreed set of goals was palpable among those taking part in the discussion at the Brady Arts and Community Centre in Whitechapel, east London.
Kate Atkins, headteacher of Rosendale Primary School in Lambeth, said the impact of current government policies had led to schools turning in on themselves instead of reaching out and collaborating with other schools.
"I believe that schools have become too inwardly-focused over the last few years. We've become obsessed by short-term targets, quick fixes, off-the-shelf solutions to our problems. We want to play it safe and we're afraid of change and we've done this to the detriment of all those within our community," she said.
"There are very good reasons why this has happened. We've got league tables, no-notice inspections, local authority support has been eroded and we are surrounded by free schools and enormous academy chains and federations.
"But I do feel there is an opportunity for change and a willingness to think about the bigger picture. We need to look up, look out and set long-term and high targets for ourselves, our schools and the whole of our community.
"We need to put our schools at the centre of their communities. We need to build a community around the school that has a shared set of values and principles that are sustainable in the long term and not dependent on the personality of the leader. We need to reach out and make networks with other schools around us."
Reviewing four years of education reform by the coalition government Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI comprehensive school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, said promises by the Education Secretary Michael Gove to foster a culture of collaboration, creativity and professional freedom had failed to materialise.
"What we have got is an atomisation of the system and schools in competition in a way that is deeply divisive. This is our most civilised Secretary of State in terms of his reading and culture and yet it feels from where I am that he is presiding over a message that creativity comes second best to academic study."
Expanding on this theme, he chided the leadership in Sanctuary Buildings for adopting a mechanistic view of education. By paying too much attention to accountability systems and performance measures ministers had narrowed the perception of learning.
As an example he described the impact of the English Baccalaureate.
"I know of some schools that took children out of GCSE music and told them they had to do GCSE history. That is not about principles and values. It's about doing something in the interest of the school because of the performance tables and not in their interests of young people," he said.
Real learning was complex, rich, deep and interesting and was not simply about what could be tested. The challenge for politicians and school leaders was to focus on the reasons why some schools do better than others.
"The ethos that you set around a school – the expectations, values and belief system – is what really drives the quality. You can take a mediocre teacher and get better results if the ethos is that children will behave with that teacher because the expectations of the school have been so clearly set out.
"Values and ethos matter. The quality of learning isn't just about the quality of teaching."
Expanding up on this theme, Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors Association, said the Welcome Trust was currently carrying out a pilot scheme with more than 20 governing bodies to discover "how we might measure the things we really care about, the things that we value".
"It is quite hard. Sometimes it comes down to gut feeling. Despite all the wonderful toolkits available around the world it is more or less impossible to measure some of the things we value most. Sometimes you just have to say, 'We know it's the right thing to do'," she said.
Putting Labour's case for an alternative agenda Rushanara Ali, Shadow Education Minister, promised to work with the profession to build a national mission to raise the country's educational performance to equal that of the world's leading school systems.
"We know we improve standards through accountability, strategic support and strong networks of leaders who are confident about what is needed in order to drive up standards. It's also about working in partnership with parents and the wider community," she said.
Labour's would end fragmentation of provision created by the current government by establishing a new middle tier – a network of standards commissioners that would provide local accountability, lead the drive for improvement and encourage school leaders and teachers to work collaboratively together.
While the shadow minister addressed many of the concerns of teachers and heads she had little to say about the vexed issue of accountability. It was left to Lucy Crehan, an international researcher who has studied some of the world's leading education systems, to question the role of school inspection and performance tables.
"Only the United States and the Netherlands have a higher proportion of schools that publish achievement data, and the United States does worse than us in PISA. Finland, Belgium, Shanghai, Japan, Switzerland and Macau are all top performers and none of them publish school data as a way of holding schools to account."
If Britain's political leaders truly wanted to emulate the world's most successful education systems they should start by abolishing league tables or publishing only value-added data, she said. They should also establish a National Board of Education or an Academy of Teachers to guide ministers on school policy.
Summing up the debate, Fiona Millar identified three areas needing urgent attention from politicians and school leaders.
Firstly, the system of accountability should be reviewed to examine not only how children and schools are measured but whether we are measuring the right things.
Secondly, values and ethos should be recognised as playing a vital role in children's learning and achievement and should be built into the accountability framework to ensure learning is about more than passing exams.
Thirdly, it was clear schools wanted to work in collaboration rather than competition.
"No one is quite sure what structures are needed to bring this about. But the way forward is going to be about finding a political solution to bring people back together again," she said
Jeremy Sutcliffe is a journalist and author of '8 Qualities of Successful School Leaders: the Desert Island Challenge'