SECONDARY schools lack "real conviction" in tackling the chronic problems of the first two years, a senior inspector said this week.
Graham Donaldson, the inspectorate number two, gave a robust defence of the HMI blueprint for change, Achieving Success in S1S2, at a conference of key secondary staff in Glasgow. But he was told, equally bluntly, that schools needed more time and resources.
Mr Donaldson revealed the inspectors' growing impatience and frustration with the "disappointing" response of secondary schools. HMI had first identified the problems in 1986. Since then, he said, half a million youngsters have gone through the "Cinderella years" of S1 and S2.
"Concerns about progression from primary to secondary, unfocused teaching, a fragmented curriculum and low pupil attainment doggedly persist," he said.
Mr Donaldson questioned the need for pupils to study up to 17 subjects in S1S2 . But he would not be drawn on which subjects to drop. "We've been guilty of packing courses into S1 and S2 which, while interesting in themselves, do not make an enduring contribution to pupils' learning," was as far as he would commit himself.
Gordon Jeyes, director of education in Stirling, called for radical measures - a maximum of nine teachers in the early secondary years and specialists trained to teach across the 10-14 stages. "There is no rational justification for a pupil moving from one teacher in primary to 22 in secondary," he said.
Mr Jeyes said the present fragmented curriculum should be replaced by a concentration on core skills. "The emphasis should be on coherence rather than balance. There's too much teaching of subjects and not enough teaching of pupils," he said.
Rosemary McDonald, the head of St Aidan's High in Wishaw, agreed there would eventually have to be a reduction in the number of subjects and a review of the skills needed at S1 and S2.
But she warned Mr Donaldson that schools face major challenges in pursuing the S1S2 agenda at a time when they have to confront targets, strained resources and the preoccupation with Higher Still. Secondary managements would have to send teachers a clear signal where their priorities lay.
Mrs McDonald accepted, however, that "if we don't improve attainment in S1S2, we will not get the results we want in external examinations".
Mr Donaldson also stirred the embers of controversy by defending HMI advice for schools to use whole-class teaching and setting when appropriate. He took on critics who have accused the inspectorate of having no research evidence to back their advice.
A review of research commissioned by the inspectorate revealed few conclusive results on the virtues of setting and mixed ability teaching, Mr Donaldson said. Information on that "could come from classroom observations and from interviews with pupils and teachers," the researchers stated.
Mr Donaldson added pointedly: "This year HM inspectors will spend 5556 days in Scottish schools doing precisely these things." But he agreed that "we need more, better and Scottish research".