Competence in writing ranges widely from work of extremely high to poor quality. Weaknesses were first pointed out by HMI as far back as 1980 in the report Learning and Teaching in Primary 4 and Primary 7.
Mr Osler, in his foreword to the Improving Writing 5-14 report, calls for action to ensure that the value of writing is recognised across all areas of the curriculum not just in English. A "writing culture" is particularly important in secondary schools where there is a need to co-ordinate the work of all subject teachers.
Teacher education institutions will be expected to give trainee teachers guidance in teaching writing in all curricular areas. Education authorities and heads are also urged to implement HMI's strategy for improving writing (see panel).
The evidence comes from a number of sources. Schools inspected from 1995-98 showed attainment in writing was unsatisfactory in 5 per cent of primaries and had important weaknesses in 43 per cent; only 8 per cent had very good attainment.
In secondaries, 35 per cent of English departments inspected from 1994-97 had important weaknesses with writing being particularly weak; only 5 per cent of secondary departments were judged very good.
The 1998 survey of English for the Assessment of Achievement Programme shows that, across eight writing tasks, 65 per cent of primary 4 pupils were at the right level for their stage, but this fell away dramatically to 36 per cent of primary 7 pupils and 23 per cent in secondary 2.
There had, however, been a "slow improvement" in the two latter stages compared with the 1995 AAP survey which itself showed progress in the same two stages against 1992.
The inspectors also looked into the teaching of writing in 17 primaries and 19 secondary English departments, focusing on the "weak link" from P6-S2. This found that 28 of the 36 schools had good or very good programmes.
Overall, writing programmes - as opposed to pupils' attainment - were good or very good in a half of primaries inspected between 1995-98, and in 70 per cent of S1-S2 English courses.
The report states: "One crucial characteristic of schools with very good programmes for writing was that pupils frequently wrote at some length. Over a year they produced several pieces of work for different specific purposes within each of the broad 5-14 categories of personal, functional and imaginative writing."
Very good teaching involved teachers taking time to tell their pupils about the writing aims for each task by discussing the specific qualities that were required, HMI states. Weak teaching offered pupils little comment on their work, beyond a tick or "good work".
Schools are also taken to task for "counter-productive" use of resources, including language worksheets. "Pupils spent large amounts of time completing exercises on language points which were not directly related to 'real' writing tasks," inspectors report.
"They became mere chores for the pupils, from which they learnt little that improved their writing. Often such activities were so prevalent that pupils did very little extended writing.
"In some cases, especially for younger pupils, language tasks were undemanding, required little or no thought on the pupils' part and contributed nothing to their growth and competence.
"Where such language practice was regular, HMIs found themselves asking the same question as that raised in the 1980 HMI report on P4 and P7: would not the time have been better spent on actual composition?"
Recognise the important contribution of writing to pupils' growth as thinkers, learners and users of language.
Implement a comprehensive writing curriculum.
Have high expectations of the quality of pupils' writing, including clarity of thought and expression together with accuracy of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Consistently engage pupils in a process of writing from thinking and planning to drafting and publishing.
Ensure all secondary courses include writing tasks relevant to the subject.
Leader, page 12