Despite six years of urging primary schools to embrace flexible approaches to teaching, "the national picture remains limited", according to the head of the inspectorate.
Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector of education, said an HMIE report on curriculum flexibility, published this week, "acts as a call to action for schools which still often adhere too rigidly to inflexible programmes of study. There remains a need for more imaginative leadership and further professional development of staff".
The inspectors found that awareness of how primaries could be less prescriptive in designing the curriculum was at an early stage in many schools; others were "sensibly cautious" about doing anything too radical. Although the report noted "a growing confidence" in adjusting the primary curriculum to meet pupils' needs, it highlighted "significant headroom for improvement".
The inspectors found some authorities gave schools almost full control over the curriculum, and they sometimes embarked on approaches without the authorities' knowledge. Other councils took a strong line to ensure opportunities were not lost in the curriculum to improve pupil attainment and achievement. Some were "unsure" how to deal with curriculum flexibility.
Although the inspectors endorsed a "free-er but no less rigorous" approach, they cautioned: "All schools visited had retained 5-14 national assessments to support their assessment and tracking of pupils' attainment. Without this 'safety net', there were risks that pupils' progress in basic skills might be allowed to slip as other priorities took centre stage."
The report recommends the issuing of "clear guidance to teachers about pupils' expected learning outcomes". Schools need to employ "a basket of formal and informal measures" to check how well their pupils are doing.
HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland will run a national conference after Easter to promote innovation and good practice.