The eighth inspectorate report on education departments places North Ayrshire alongside its neighbour, Inverclyde, at the top of the unofficial Scottish league table, despite serving a large number of disadvantaged communities.
National exam results are below average, although reading and mathematics in 5-14 tests have remained "consistently above the national average".
Of the 11 performance indicators, North Ayrshire receives five very goods and six goods, pushing it a fraction behind its neighbour in overall performance. It is only the third authority to be awarded the top commendation of very good for key aspects of its practice. Inverclyde received seven very goods and Dundee two.
Peter McNamara, education convener, said: "This is an excellent report card for North Ayrshire. It shows that we are providing the children here with the best opportunities. The report sends a very positive message to any family, or employer, thinking of putting down roots here."
Inspectors praise the work of the department's senior managers, and John Travers, corporate director, said: "Obviously, I'm very pleased with the report. This is a council that adds value to its schools, gives good support and has a good relationship with headteachers. It is also pleasing that we did not receive any fairs or unsatisfactories from the HMI."
Mr Travers points out that the report highlights the excellent work of the advisory service in supporting schools at a time when its role is under discussion nationally. "The value of a really good advisory team comes out very strongly," he said.
He described HMI's inquiry as "rigorous and demanding but very thorough". His authority is now tackling areas identified by the inspectors, including a revised capital programme and an education for work strategy.
The report says that the authority promotes a culture of continuous improvement. "Despite dif-ficult economic and social circumstances, there was evidence of improvement in a number of areas, including some aspects of attainment in primary schools, and achievements in international relations, arts and music."
HMI says the service should refocus its efforts on secondary attainment and challenge schools to set higher targets in national qualifications. Almost all headteachers rate highly the level of support, direction and communication from senior education officials.
Main points for action include further approaches to raising attainment and new guidelines and advice on the curriculum. The inspectors also want a review of the exclusions policy which allows schools and parents to withdraw pupils with difficulties for up to three days.
* The high priority given to education.
* The clarity and impact of vision, values and aims.
* The director's strategic focus.
* Effective communication with stakeholders.
* High quality planning.
* Efficient and effective financial management.
* Pre-school provision, including strong links with partnership centres.
* Key initiatives in development planning and monitoring attainment in primaries.