Mr Osler also hinted that environmental studies may face a shake-up if it was found that not enough attention was being paid to its constituent parts. He returned to a long-standing theme when he pointed to the growing complexity of the primary teacher's job, and suggested that specialist teaching might be required, particularly in an area such as environmental studies at the upper primary stages.
Mr Osler's comments were welcomed by Rena Mitchell, incoming president of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland. The content of environmental studies imposed heavy demands particularly towards the end of primary 6 and in primary 7 to secondary 2, Mrs Mitchell said. "They certainly did not err on the side of omission when they drew up the guidelines."
Mrs Mitchell said her own school could not offer information technology with five old BBC machines, three Apple Macs and one Acorn computer. "We don't have a wealthy parent group to raise extra funds," she said. The Scottish Office timetable is that the 5-14 programme should be fully in place by 1999 but Mrs Mitchell said a straw poll among her colleagues in South Lanarkshire made clear this was unrealistic.
Mr Osler's message was that HMI would be "soft-edged" as well as "hard-edged" in its expectations of schools, ensuring that pupils had a comfortable environment in which to grow but also that the public saw a return on its investment in education. He warned heads not to regard 5-14 targets as a goal and said 80 per cent of pupils should be able to go beyond them. "If we stick rigidly to the targets, we will drive down standards," he said.
Mr Osler went out of his way to praise primaries, and although he came close to the Prime Minister's election phrase that he was "a warrior against complacency" he said he was not prepared to harp on schools' weaknesses without reference to their strengths, so spreading "unnecessary alarm".
"Anything less than the best practice disadvantages some pupils for some length of time", he said, reminding heads of the finding from the HMI Standards and Quality report that 5 per cent of primary schools (more than 100) were poorly led. That report had carried "extensive criticisms" of many aspects of primary education.
HMI estimates that 6,000-8,000 children are unable to read competently by the end of primary 3. "That does not mean restricting the curriculum, " Mr Osler stressed. "The Inspectorate still expects balance but schools' flexibility time can and should be used to address problems in the core skills."
Mr Osler delivered yet another assurance that setting and mixed-abili ty teaching would be judged only by whether they brought out the best in pupils. "We do not come with any assumptions," he said.
His main message that inspectors would continue to demand the highest expectations of schools drew the riposte from May Scott, head of St Aloysius primary in Glasgow, that "quality education requires quality money".