Last month's HMI report on school standards slammed writing in Scottish schools. But an approach that works by developing imagination could change all that, Julie Morrice reports
Scandal", "Failure", "Calamity". It was the usual measured media response to last month's HMI report on Scottish schools.
The statistic that received most publicity was that roughly 50 per cent of primary schools need to improve their pupils' performance in writing. It is not a statistic to be proud of, but the unspoken assumption, that modern teaching methods are failing the nation's children, does not survive the light of scrutiny.
"When I was at school, you were either good at writing or you weren't. I remember a teacher saying to me, 'It doesn't matter. When are you going to need to write stories as a grown-up anyway?' " Karen Smith teaches Primary 4 at Newarthill Primary near Motherwell. Along with 80 other schools in North Lanarkshire, Newarthill has started teaching writing using a new system developed by primary adviser Patricia Wilson.
Developing Writing is a whole-school and whole-class approach. Flourishes of the imagination or precise descriptions are no longer assumed to be the preserve of the talented few. This is an inclusive method which is improving confidence in writing among both staff and pupils, and is making good writing something everyone can achieve.
The scheme predates the HMI report by two years and shows that schools were already addressing the problem of writing performance. North Lanarkshire expects to have the system operating in all its 134 primary schools by the end of 2000; South Ayrshire and Clackmannanshire have also adopted the system, and schools in Scottish Borders and North Ayrshire are interested.
North Lanarkshire is putting together a report on the progress of the system in 50 of its schools. Initial results are encouraging: 90 per cent of teachers said they had made significant changes to their teaching; 98 per cent said they had seen an improvement in standards; 93 per cent said they had seen a marked improvement.
Initially teaching staff in North Lanarkshire were "panic-stricken" at the prospect of yet another new classroom method, but it soon transpired that Developing Writing is based very much on what staff were already doing, but that it provides a lesson-by-lesson and level-by-level structure which clarifies the teaching of a notoriously woolly subject.
Angela McGahan of Keir Hardie Primary, also in Newarthill, says: "We didn't feel very confident in the teaching of writing and we weren't getting the results we might have wanted."
She has used the new system to teach writing in both a P12 class and a P7 class which had abilities spanning levels A to E. She is in no doubt that the system has raised levels of achievement in the school. "But it is not a quick fix. We are constantly adapting the system to suit different classes. It is infinitely adaptable. The system can cope with any class."
At Keir Hardie they have been using the system for two years now, and the evidence is there for anyone to see. The corridors and the gym hall are plastered with handwritten stories from pupils of all ages, and every classroom has its Writing Wall, where this week's Star Writers and Magic Pencil winners have their work displayed.
Writing has been shoved up the agenda, and is now a subject everyone looks forward to. Classes spend about an hour and a half once a week on writing, and even before children have learnt the whole alphabet they are being encouraged to do their own writing.
Headteacher of Keir Hardie, Jean McClean, relates with great relish the story of one six-year-old who got a thesaurus for Christmas. "Now," he said, "I won't just be 'happy' or 'sad', I can find loads of different things to be."
Developing Writing, a whole-school teaching programme, is available from pound;150 from the Quality Development Service, Kildonan Street, Coatbridge ML5 3BTTel: 01236 812291