A new Assessment of Achievement (AAP) report is always an occasion for some knock-about fun and last month's publication of the 2004 maths results, covering P3 to S2, kept up the tradition. Wilkie Collins (I think) summed up the ingredients of quality entertainment as: "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait."
So the AAP launch was marked by primary and secondary teachers throwing verbal custard pies at each other, newspapers running headlines of the "Scots children so bad at maths they can't even tell the time" variety and employers wondering if they will ever get school-leavers who can count. The Education Minister finished off by saying there was much to be proud of.
Despite the ballyhoo, most teachers have never heard of AAP reports and that is a pity. Perhaps the more generous continuing professional development time now available will allow them a wider circulation. Even at speed reading level the AAP maths report paints a more comprehensive and encouraging picture than any newspaper would admit or even understand.
My favourite part is section five, "pupils' views about mathematics", which collects the comments of some 6,000 pupil questionnaires. In describing their attitudes to maths, their lesson activities and their homework, the picture is one of comforting normality. Most pupils do most of their work in jotters while working alone and most had regular homework. They are expected to study hard and want to do well. Few claim to look forward to maths lessons but most are OK about them.
Best of all is the coolness towards the statement: "Learning is about asking 'why?' and 'what if?'" Their replies were a polite "not usually", but we would have understood if it had been a puzzled "eh?"
Something else which doesn't change is the transition from primary to secondary. It's a main concern of the report. Figures show that, from P3 to P7, "schools do appear to be building on pupils' achievement", although the numbers attaining level D at P7 could be healthier. But there is no encouragement in the data from S2 pupils. Something is happening - or not happening - between P7 and S1-S2 which is detrimental to progress.
Both the AAP report and its HMIE companion, Improving Achievement in Mathematics, question the pace of learning. They point to P7 in particular and suggest that teachers are moving some pupils through level D too quickly and in not enough depth, resulting in a shadowy grasp of level D maths. There is a hint of support for this position from members of the Scottish Mathematical Council, who also blame a lack of detailed information from P7 teachers for apparent poor progress at S1.
There may be truth in both charges. Some primaries seem to pick 5-14 levels with a pin; some secondaries still look upon S1 as a "fresh start".
Problems at transition cannot be tackled by national diktat. Only doing so at local level - secondary and associated primaries - will work because the teachers have to know one another and, if that process isn't under way other moves will fail. It takes time and patience for groups to establish openness, confidence and a genuine spirit of enquiry.
Primary teachers need to drop their defensive guard. Secondary teachers need to realise that, as a body, they appear arrogant, especially when rhyming off the perceived faults of their new intake or dismissing primary assessments with "we'll blanket test them in September anyway".
Many primary teachers sympathise with the problems of maths departments, especially in coping with so many new pupils each summer. They have detailed information and expertise to pass on and will do so happily - just let them see that it is used and valued.
Yet again, an AAP report makes a fascinating read. Whether it's an influence on future development depends on the quality of relationships among teachers.
Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.