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Ministers' recipe for weakness

Reaction to the Inspectorate's report on the strengths and weaknesses of Scottish schools over the past three years (page three) depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. The new senior chief inspector of schools has certainly signalled in his foreword that he intends taking a robust line more in tune with that of Chris Woodhead, his southern counterpart.

It is not just that Douglas Osler has underlined the usual point that "much has been achieved but much remains to be done": his predecessor's comments at the time of the previous 1993 report struck a similar note. But Mr Osler has clearly opted to focus on the child and give statistics a harder edge. Hence the potential for pessimism. "Only" 5 per cent of primaries and 20 per cent of secondaries are under unsatisfactory management, but this affects more than 180 schools and hundreds of their pupils.

On the other hand, a system which is delivering good or very good learning and teaching in 85 per cent of primaries and 80 per cent of secondary subject departments gives cause for optimism which should not be shrugged off on the back of some stubborn failings. The most disappointing aspects of the report, however, centre on the repetitive nature of many of the findings. Three years on, HMIs say the first two years of secondary school give them nothing but disappointment, and that writing, problem-solving and environmental studies in primary along with religious education in secondary still have to make major strides.

Ministers will inevitably say that all this goes to prove the wisdom of its 5-14 programme, including testing in the first two secondary years, as the key to cranking up standards. But there are more fundamental worries suggested by the persistence of the S1-S2 "problem", which have their roots in the transition process itself from primary. Perhaps this is a combination of the generalist nature of the upper primary curriculum, the heavily subject-centred experience to which pupils in secondary 1 suddenly shift, and the survival of the "fresh start" mentality in secondaries.

Whatever the causes, the need for primaries and secondaries to consider what they expect of each other is amply illustrated by this report. It is a pity, therefore, that the HMI investigation currently under way into the primary 6-secondary 2 experience was stigmatised before it got off the ground by ministerial obsessions with mixed-ability teaching and streaming. Like assessment and appraisal, this Government has an uncanny knack of giving good ideas a bad name.

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