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Could do better - and can do better;Leading Article;Opinion

THE batch of Inspectorate reports last week may be in line to receive more attention than most. Not now of course - HMIs are too prolific for most of their injunctions to have much of a shelf life. But the judgments on how well pupils are coping with English, mathematics and science could be evidence for future historians when they weigh up the state of Scottish education at the start of the new millennium.

Inspectors do not write for posterity. They deliver snapshot judgments on which they base advice for teacher action now. Yet the underlying argument of the reports amounts to a general view of our schools. The message is "could do better". Pupils who receive such a report from their teachers are not usually happy, for underachievement has been signalled. Yet the prospect of progress is also held out: you have the potential, use it.

Primary teachers in particular may be irritated by the HMI's criticisms. They have been led to believe that they do well by their pupils and if the system has problems, these are mainly in secondary. But dissatisfaction with performance in, say, writing and science can be taken on the chin. Less than a decade into the 5-14 programme - the first opportunity to form across-the board judgments on that age group - it would be surprising if no room for improvement could be found.

The tension between emphasising imagination and insisting on accuracy has long bedevilled language teaching. Interestingly, the HMI note that one reason for underachievement is over-concentration on disembodied, mechanical exercises - no comfort there for traditionalists who see restoration of standards through a dose of parsing.

As for science, lack of grasp and so of confidence on the part of primary teachers is no surprise. Few have been trained to be scientists. No wonder they rely too much on predigested materials. If a teacher does not herself understand fundamental concepts, she is unlikely to impart deep learning. Inescapable in HMI's criticisms is the need for more and better directed resources.

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