There are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a week - yet secondary schools are expected to deliver a high-standard of general education, good citizens, environmentally-aware, healthy young people and good all-round achievers.
"We can't do it all, so where should we be prioritising?" was the refrain from sector representatives following the official launch of HMIE's Improving Scottish Education report last week at Hampden.
Prompted by chief inspector Frank Crawford, delegates were asked whether they recognised and accepted the agenda for change - from Curriculum for Excellence to the Early Years Framework. Was there enough synergy between the education system and sustainable economic development?
Carole Ford, president of School Leaders Scotland and head of Kilmarnock Academy, did not accept HMIE's analysis of slow progress in S1-2. "The recent Timss results showed that children were performing less well at primary than secondary. I think there is a real issue here - we have no objective assessment of what children achieve at primary yet we talk about it as if we do," she said.
John Brown, head of Peebles High, contended that secondary education had to take into account the economic priorities of the country: "Whatever we are teaching, they have to be successful in the world - or more successful than we are just now, with more than 60 per cent of Scots working in the public sector."
But not all teachers would buy into that philosophy, argued Charles McAteer, seconded from Dumfries Academy to work in the education department of Dumfries and Galloway Council. "This desire to be top of the league in economic terms is being overtaken by people's desire to live fulfilling lives, comfortable with their environment and with one another," he said.
Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, also raised the problem of there being not enough time to fit everything in. "Academic young people are not getting enough skills training. If you talk to an engineering faculty, they need academic and practical skills. I think we have got it right in our heads but not in practicalities, because there is not enough time. We can't prepare kids for sustainable development, citizenship and so on, and teach them," she said.
While HMIE complained not enough pupils were doing "hard subjects" like maths, science and languages, society was pushing children towards easy outcomes, said Mrs Ford. "When I speak to kids in my school, they think they will win the lottery, become a footballer or footballer's wife, or win X Factor. It's a societal issue - a media issue. Why stick in at physics if you think you are going to win the lottery?"
Another problem was pupils' ability to retain what they had learnt, she added. Education experts in England had also identified this as an issue, said Mr Crawford. "South of the border, they are reviewing the assessment system and one of the missing links they have spotted is medium to long-term retention - so that is about revisiting concepts."
The symbol chosen by HMIE to illustrate its analysis of the secondary sector was the Roman god Janus - to show its reflection on the past and the need to look to the future.
Looking back at reports over the last three years, Lachlan MacCallum, HMIE's lead inspector in secondary, told delegates that teaching was good or better in 88 per cent of secondaries and satisfactory or better in 98 per cent; the curriculum was good or better in 80 per cent and satisfactory in 95 per cent of schools; and self-evaluation good or better in 41 per cent and satisfactory in 74 per cent. Only 49 per cent were rated good or better for the quality of their attainment at S1-2, although 86 per cent were deemed satisfactory.
The positive messages of inspectors' findings for secondary over the last three years were that:
- Lesson planning was more consistent;
- There was an increased awareness of the principles of Assessment is for Learning;
- There was increasing use of ICT as a medium for teaching;
- Inspectors found some genuinely inspiring subject teaching.
However, in a minority of schools, teachers needed to inject more rigour, relevance and excitement into their teaching.