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Writing fails to thrill, says HMI

Too few secondary departments meet high standards of attainment in English, reports Neil Munro

THE LATEST Standards and Quality report from HMI delivers the usual mixed messages and highlights familiar themes, this time on English in secondary schools. Oft-repeated concerns centre on slow progress in the first two years of secondary and on "disappointingly low" standards in writing in those years.

In only 5 per cent of departments are almost all (more than 90 per cent) first and second-year pupils achieving the right level.

Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, stuck by her recently expressed public indignation at the negative spin on such findings, however, and accentuated the positive. "This report shows that standards of English teaching and learning are improving in Scotland's secondary schools. Overall this report highlights more strengths than weaknesses. Teachers who provide a quality learning environment for their pupils are to be commended," Mrs Liddell said.

Quality of teaching was found to be good or very good in 85 per cent of English departments.

Mrs Liddell concentrated on rehearsing measures that have already been announced which she believes will rectify weaknesses. These include reviewing the S1-S2 curriculum, setting out pupils' 5-14 achievements at the end of S2, pumping pound;60 million into early intervention, focusing teacher training on literacy and numeracy problems from P6 to S2, and pound;7.8 million to buy books.

Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, also paid tribute to English teachers who "generally provide broad and enriching courses for their pupils. In the best departments, high expectations and effective teaching lead to very good standards of attainment. However, far too few departments meet these high standards."

The inspectors, whose findings are based on visits to 80 secondary schools from 1994-97, say 35 per cent of English departments showed very good leadership, 45 per cent of principal teachers exhibited more strengths than weaknesses and 20 per cent (16 in total) had important weaknesses.

The problems facing pupils with writing are to be pursued by HMI in its forthcoming report on Improving Writing 5-14. For now Mr Osler urges schools to ensure that pupils have more practice and encouragement in writing.

In his foreword he states: "The need to improve the quantity and quality of writing undertaken by pupils in English classes in S1-S2 should prompt us to ask more generally if pupils' writing experience is extensive enough across the curriculum as a whole."

The report says schools need to ensure that "the study of literature at all stages includes much more discussion of language use and the writer's craft as part of exploring the impact and meaning of texts".

Ineffective teaching often involved "poorly planned or trivial tasks, most frequently in S1-S2, which were so easy to complete that pupils did not take their language skills forward. A common feature of less effective teaching was the setting of tasks for pupils without adequate demonstration and teaching of the relevant skills or without pupils understanding the nature of the task."

Overall, departments are told to develop "sharper evaluations of the quality of courses, teaching performance and pupils' attainment at all stages". The effectiveness of self-evaluation is "disappointing", with only half of departments judged to be very good or to have more strengths than weaknesses.

Although the major weaknesses were found in the first two years, the inspectors also suggest a better pace of progress needs to be achieved for pupils in the fifth and sixth years. The best plaudits were reserved for the relationships between staff and pupils and the general ethos in English departments which were found to be either very good or had more strengths than weaknesses.

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