Pupils aged nine to 14 falling into 'black hole' of failure

A "BLACK hole" in children's classroom performance could leave Scotland lagging other nations in literacy and numeracy, a major new report on education warns today.

The report, Improving Scottish Education, claims that too many pupils are still not reaching expected levels of achievement in the later years of primary and early secondary. International studies have previously found that from primary five to the second year of high school, Scots pupils lag children in other countries.

Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) last night warned the problem might hamper Scotland's efforts to combat economic recession. He said: "The continuing strength of Scottish education provides a sound platform for the kind of significant improvement which the current economic environment and future prosperity demand.

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"But there is a real danger the world will pass Scotland by, giving renewed urgency to improving learning for all our young people and adult learners."

Mr Donaldson said the overall findings of three-year review were encouraging, but there had been too little improvement since 2006. The report also warned that 10 per cent of headteachers still showed "important weaknesses".

However, this was an improvement from the 2006 report, which said 15-20 per cent of teachers were "fair" or "unsatisfactory".

HMIe also highlighted concerns over the poor achievement of children in deprived areas and warned that "the gap between young people who achieve and those who do not is too wide".

Teachers called into question the benchmark by which achievement was measured.

Jim Docherty, acting general-secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA), said: "If we are continuing to find this P5-S2 black hole is there year in, year out, despite attention being given to it, the greater likelihood is that the original expectation (of pupils' attainment] was wrong.

"As childhood develops into adolescence, it's well established that other factors take over and perhaps their education and schoolwork becomes less of an interest."

He added: "The SSTA is not going to accept the P5-S2 experience is significantly below that of the other school years."

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Greg Dempster, general-secretary of the Association of Head and Deputes in Scotland, said: "Based on the HMIe's own gradings, it is clear that in about 82 per cent of schools teaching is deemed to be good or better and in only about 2 per cent is it deemed to be weak.

"If learning and teaching is, in most cases, good or better, yet children underperform against later benchmarks, why do we continue to assume the expectations are accurate and the progress of children is wrong?"

On the issue of educational leadership, he asked: "Where did the weaknesses lie – with management teams, with headteachers, with local authority support – and were they issues easily and subsequently addressed?"

An EIS spokesman said: "We share the concerns regarding issues the report identifies in the later years of primary and the early years of secondary.

"This will be a key challenge to be addressed under the Curriculum for Excellence, which will free teachers to provide greater flexibility in what is taught and how in the classroom."

Ken Cunningham: Report card that states 'significant improvements'

THIS latest report on the state of the nation's education system is a bit like the curate's egg, but the good on this occasion far outweighs the bad. There are many significant positives to reassure us of the quality of teaching and learning throughout alongside the huge commitment of all staff.

There are many pleasing aspects not least the clear indicators of improvement over time. The vast majority of young people are clearly well served and many leave at the end of their school studies well prepared for the confusing and rapidly changing marketplace.

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There are, however, serious challenges. There is still an unacceptable under-class, and despite a range of advances in terms of teaching and learning, wider achievement opportunities and an increasing range of vocational and skills courses, success is still limited for too many.

The HMIe is placing considerable faith in the opportunities within the Curriculum for Excellence programme. Many schools have responded very well to these challenges but there remain many unanswered questions. The "dip" in learning identified in the report must be challenged through good learning and teaching, course, and assessment strategies.

All of this however is in jeopardy if solutions are not found soon to robust succession planning for headteachers, the current unemployment prospects of newly qualified teachers and perhaps critically, to the dire signs of financial incapacity that will play havoc with essential resources.

• Ken Cunningham is general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary headteachers.

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