Primary schools have a good track record in meeting pastoral needs, but their effectiveness in meeting the learning needs of all pupils is more variable, HMIE reports.
Inspectors identify the motivation of pupils, supportive climate for learning, skilled teaching staff, a curriculum offering a broad range of learning opportunities and attainment of pupils from P1-P4 as among the key strengths of the primary sector.
However, the quality of learning experiences is "still too variable and too often lacks relevance, engagement and excitement".
The report adds: "How pupils learn and acquire a range of skills enabling them to achieve greater independence as learners across their seven years in primary school requires further development." Pupils should be achieving more - particularly in P6-P7, and particularly lower attainers.
HMIE calls for strategic leadership with a clear focus on learning and teaching. It reminds teachers that "all staff need to accept that they have a leadership role to play in building the school's capacity for improvement".
Strengths in English language and mathematics, particularly in lower primary, are already well-documented, but the inspectorate repeats its finding that there are important weaknesses in overall attainment in English language in about a quarter of schools and in mathematics in a fifth of schools.
While schools may be achieving success in supporting progression in programme content from P1-P7, the same progress is not being made in developing pupils' skills as learners. "As a result, many pupils have not developed high-level and independent learning skills by the time they leave P7," the report states.
Teachers are praised, however, for their growing repertoire of teaching approaches and their adaption of these to meet learning needs. These include interactive teaching and learning in mental maths, collaborative work in writing and drama, and increasing use of technologies such as interactive whiteboards.
Formative assessment within the Assessment is for Learning programme is recognised as helping teachers and giving pupils a clear understanding of what they are trying to learn and what is expected of them.
Curricular programmes of study are most well developed in maths and English language, and while there have been significant improvements in science, skills such as problem-solving and literacy are not well developed.
Many schools have found it difficult to balance maintaining a broad curriculum with the creative adaptation of the curriculum to meet all learning needs, the inspectors said. Few schools had a well-developed rationale of how to use the 20 per cent time available for local flexibility.
Other findings are that more than a quarter of primary schools need to improve their management of discipline, 20 per cent of schools have important weaknesses in leadership and more than a third show important weaknesses in self-evaluation.
The overall conclusion is that there is often not a clear enough focus on learning and teaching.