Alarm bells over achievement

20th June 1997 at 01:00
For the second week running the Scottish Office has been obliged to express concern over pupil achievement, reinforcing the Education Minister's determination to mount a major drive on a "standards agenda".

Brian Wilson reacted after the fourth survey of performance in English, under the auspices of the Assessment of Achievement Programme, showed "an uneven performance" between primary 4, primary 7 and secondary 2. This followed the findings of the international maths and science study which showed nine-year-olds are falling behind children in other countries.

The latest AAP study, conducted by Edinburgh University, is regarded as a more reliable indicator of standards than the vagaries of international comparisons. It tested 6,000 pupils in nearly 150 primaries and 50 secondaries and allows progress to be tracked across the three critical 5-14 stages as well as against previous surveys in 1984, 1989 and 1992. This week's report refers to 1995.

The results are scarcely more comforting than those of the earlier studies, confirming continuing weaknesses in reading and writing, particularly in secondary 2, and a decline in attainment by primary 7 compared with primary 4. Mr Wilson hoped the 5-14 guidelines would make a difference once they were fully implemented. This script has been echoed in ministerial responses to at least the two previous AAP reports.

Mr Wilson underlined, however, three steps which he believed might improve matters by the time of the fifth survey next year. The Government had set aside Pounds 13 million over three years to strengthen early literacy and numeracy, the year's postponement for Higher Still should allow a breathing space for additional effort in the first two secondary years and the forthcoming HMI review of the early secondary years is intended to address shortcomings at these stages.

Overall performance reveals a complex picture but one clear message: standards in 1995 declined as pupils moved upwards. Performance in all four aspects of language were in line with level B in primary 4. But by primary 7, while a majority were competent talkers and listeners working at level D, just over half were working towards level D in reading and only a third achieved level D for writing. In secondary 2, the majority were working towards level E in listening and reading, but only a third had reached the target in talking and a fifth in writing.

The AAP report says imaginative writing was a particular weakness in secondary 2, with primary 7 pupils proving to be better at spelling and secondary 2 pupils being no more proficient in use of language, punctuation and ideas. Fewer than 10 per cent of S2 pupils were achieving level E in imaginative writing.

The report states: "Across all tasks, over half the pupils demonstrated inadequate mechanical skills; their scripts showed weak sentence structure, infrequent use of link words, absence of paragraphing, and spelling and punctuation poor enough to be obtrusive." A significant number produced handwriting which hampered the reader's comprehension. Capital letters, "or letters that appeared to be capitals", were often used indiscriminately.

All stages saw "some significant decline in reading", but writing had improved on the 1992 performance in primary 4 and 7. There was "a significant improvement" in two talking skills among primary 7 pupils: "shows attention to task" and "willingly participates and talks easily about personal experiences, feelings or interests".

comment, page 21 The report is available from the Centre for Research on Learning and Instruction at Edinburgh University, 1012 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh EH8 9JT.

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