HMI's alert on English language (see below) was reinforced by a poor showing in the latest survey from the Assessment of Achievement Programme.
While 81 per cent of P4 pupils had basic reading skills at 5-14 level B, this declined to 67 per cent of P7 pupils who attained level D and 67 per cent of S2 pupils at level E.
Performance in writing was even worse - a high attaining score of 80 per cent of P4 pupils at level B dropped to fewer than 60 per cent of P7 pupils at level D and only 33 per cent of S2 pupils at level E. Performance in listening and talking was better.
In an unexpectedly swift response designed to deflect opposition criticism, Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, announced that every authority would be required to set up new arrangements involving one of their secondaries and associated primaries to review the way reading and writing is taught from P6 to S2. The intention is also to improve the transition from primary into secondary.
The extent of ministerial frustration was evident in Ms Jamieson's description of the AAP survey as portraying "a familiar picture" of good attainment in English language in the early years but a wider spread of attainment at the later stages. "Too many are struggling with reading and writing," she admitted.
The new initiative - billed as a national literacy project, to avoid any comparisons with the controversial "literacy hour" in schools in England - will be headed by a national advisory group and should get under way in August.
The outcome of the project will be shared with schools across Scotland, backed up by seminars, conferences and publication of materials on the internet. An evaluation report will be published by Easter 2005.
Ms Jamieson, while driven to make the announcement this week because of the AAP and HMI reports, had been expected to unveil an initiative of this kind following her response to the national education debate which trailed her intention to put improved literacy and numeracy at the centre of a revised school curriculum.
She said this week that her latest policy "taken together with other ongoing work - including proposals to reduce class sizes at the primary to secondary transitional stage and allowing teachers to teach across primary and secondary - will make a crucial difference . . . at all stages of school, and close the gap between those who are succeeding and those who are doing less well".
PATCHY PICTURE OF PROGRESS
The 2001 AAP results are based on testing 7,400 pupils in 323 primaries and 111 secondaries and show a patchy picture since the previous survey in 1998.
In reading, there was no improvement at level B in P4, a 10 per cent decrease at level D in P7 and a 9 per cent decline at level E in S2.
In writing, there was an improvement in the numbers attaining level B in P4 from 66 per cent to 71 per cent from 1998-2001 and no change in the P7 performance.
There was a small improvement in the numbers on level E at the end of S2 from 21 per cent to 24 per cent, but the researchers describe this as "disappointingly small".
This is despite more time being spent on English - 10 per cent more in P7 and some 5 per cent more in P4 and S2.
Schools spent an average 330 minutes a week on English language learning in P4 and P7 and 214 minutes in S2.