A DESPERATE struggle to avoid a collapse in the new Stoke-on-Trent education service has been uncovered by inspectors.
The Labour-controlled city is praised in a new Office for Standards in Education report for its response to a crisis in its schools support service after it took over from Staffordshire County Council in April 1997.
A sudden rush of failing inspection reports in the city's primary schools and a shortage of advisory staff "led to the real possibility of the authority being overwhelmed by the weight and urgency of the needs.
"To the authority's credit that has not occurred," says the report, based on the first OFSTED inspection of a new urban unitary authority.
The report does not criticise Staffordshire's management of the education service before 1997 and comments that the transfer of power to the new unitary authority was "thoroughly prepared and handled competently".
However, Stoke-on-Trent inherited an education system which, according to its own analysis, suffers from "significant shortfalls in the subject expertise of teachers, their expectations, the quality of their planning and their use of assessment data."
There are also major "weaknesses in the management of many schools, including middle management and monitoring the quality of education".
Eight schools have now been placed in special measures and a further nine found to have serious weaknesses.
The number of children permanently excluded from secondary schools is among the highest in the country and temporary exclusions are running at an average of 40 per school per year, with one school expelling 218. The service for excluded pupils inherited by the Stoke is "wholly inadequate."
However, the report has a happier story to tell about the council's efforts since 1997.
"There are grounds for much optimism. This new local authority is facing up to the difficult challenges which it inherited with considerable vigour," the report says.
The council's support for failing and struggling schools is picked out as a strength and efforts to improve school management are praised. Teaching of literacy, numeracy in primary schools, and information technology have been well-supported, according to the inspectors.
Areas where progress is needed include: more effective use of
performance data, better support for secondary literacy and numeracy teaching, and improved guidance on pupil attendance and behaviour management.
Stoke is congratulated for expanding the number of places for excluded children at referral units by more than 500 per cent.
The city is also told that its education development plan - a strategy for school improvement that all authorities are obliged to supply to the Government - "threatens to sink under its own weight and complexity."
Terry Doughty, Stoke's chairman of education, said: "Obviously, we know that after just two years, there is still much work to be done, but we are pleased that an independent inspection has shown the city council is striving hard to improve standards for young people."