The teaching of computing in further education colleges leaves "considerable room for improvement", according to a hard-hitting report from HMIE.
In one of the most withering inspections of an FE subject, it noted that, in 26 reviews of computing and ICT in colleges carried out over a four- year period to June last year, only five colleges (19 per cent) were deemed "very good" for teaching and learning; for all subjects, the national average at that grade was 46 per cent of colleges.
The progress and achievements of students on computing were also poor; only one college (4 per cent) was evaluated as "very good", compared with 29 per cent of colleges in all subjects.
And 11 colleges were judged only "fair" on how well their students were performing - 42 per cent, against 13 per cent of colleges rated in that category for all subjects.
The HMIE report, published today, is short on reasons for the failings compared with other subjects but says a debate suggests that "there are fundamental issues to be addressed in relation to programme design and learning and teaching approaches".
Part of the explanation seems simple: students are confused. They do not always appreciate the difference between computing science and ICT, although that is said to begin in school. The report notes: "There are those who believe that computing is about using ICT. There are others who think that computing is about being a programmer, analyst, technician, games developer or systems designer."
It goes on to say: "Many of those FE learners on computing programmes who lose motivation and engagement do so because their expectations of the programme do not match the reality of the content.
"Learners who think that computing is about use of applications find little interest in the units dealing with systems, programming or mathematics. Those who study at FE level as preparation for a career in computing are often disappointed by the dominance and repetitive nature of applications-based units in their programme."
Inspectors believes lack of clarity in teaching leads to students being demotivated and dropping out.
But analysing the performance of students in FE is complex. Colleges have an incentive to keep students on the first quarter of a course as the Scottish Funding Council pays them to ensure that happens; thereafter, they are simply paid according to the numbers who stay on.
The data on computing students is startling. Of 1,949 student enrolments in 2007-08, 74 per cent of the first quarter group completed their programme - but that fell to 56 per cent by session's end.
The HMIE review points the finger at the quality of teaching which it suggests is "highly variable both within and across colleges". Among "many important weaknesses" are poor judging of students' attention span, organising teaching around what is to be assessed rather than what is to be learned, and being too passive in supporting learners.
Even the most basic guidance appears to be lacking, the inspection found. "Teaching staff do not always ensure that learners understand fully the importance of assessment deadlines, not only in relation to timeous submission but also as evidence of effective time management as an employability skill.
"The ability to meet deadlines is also important for college learners hoping to progress to further study at certain higher education institutions, where there are severe penalties for learners who miss deadlines for assessment submissions."