IN AN unusual move this week, the Scottish Executive issued three HMI reports on separate subjects at the same time, supplemented by a fourth, to ram home key messages on strengthening teaching in schools.
As one source said: "It was time to draw together some common themes without being seen to repeat the same negative message on three separate occasions."
The reports on 5-14 science, 5-14 writing and secondary school maths pointed to specific shortcomings but also had more general lessons for schools. Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, said the quality of schooling was still "robust" but there was "a consistency of message" emerging from the evidence of inspection. Weaknesses in writing had been spotlighted as long ago as 1980.
The weaknesses lay not just in teaching but in management, Mr Osler agreed. HMI hopes its new powers to inspect education authorites, to be included in the forthcoming Education Bill, will allow it to monitor more closely the implementation of national policies and guidelines.
Mr Osler spelt out five "generic issues" emerging from the reports, which were backed up by the first HMI survey showing sluggish progress towards the achievement of national targets (page four). The issues are:
The importance of high quality teaching and spreading best practice. "Each report shows very good teaching in many classrooms in many schools so we do have the good practice to which to aspire," Mr Osler said.
The need for more direct teaching. "This is not the same as teachers spending all of their time in front of a class talking to all of the pupils," Mr Osler stressed. "It is maximising the interaction with children and the process of engagement that matters. Some of it will be whole-class teaching, some will be with individuals and some with groups."
Teachers must have much higher expectations of pupils.
Schools must constantly emphasise the importance of attainment which "is entirely compatible with the positive outcomes of a good education".
The importance of targets to chart how much progress is being made and raise standards.
Mr Osler called for an end to "instant rejection" of unpalatable messages which point to weaknesses in schools. "It would be helpful, when evidence emerges from any source of the need to bring about improvement in the system, if it was met by a determined effort to support the necessary change rather than defensiveness which results in attempts to undermine the evidence rather than address the problem."
The Educational Institute of Scotland immediately counter-
attacked. It accused the Inspectorate of setting unilateral targets which failed to produce a consensus on what is reasonable to expect of pupils and of issuing advice which teachers follow only to find themselves accused when it is changed at a later stage.
But Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, said this week's reports confirm the need for action.
* "Significant weaknesses" in half of the 92 maths departments inspected from 1995-99.
* Attainment in 5-14 writing rated very good in only 8 per cent of primaries and 5 per cent of secondary departments.
* Pupils' attainment in 5-14 science was weak or unsatisfactory in 49 per cent of primaries and 37 per cent of secondaries.