the first round of inspections of the 32 education authorities has found "wide variations in performance", HM Inspectorate of Education reported this week in conclusions which came as little surprise.
But the education directorate has expressed concern about comparisons being made between authorities. Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, said some authorities had much to do to match the standards of the best. "Achieving the right balance between intelligent challenge and effective support requires continuing vigilance and review," he said.
"The touchstone must be that the work of senior staff and quality improvement officers leads clearly to improvement for pupils. Few authorities are as yet very good in this key area of their work."
The inspectors based their evidence on the first round of full inspections between 2000 and 2005, along with 18 follow-up visits to authorities. A key conclusion was the link between the quality of leadership and a council's educational effectiveness: 10 authorities were rated as high performers which had sustained top quality leadership over a number of years.
These were (roughly in order of scores) East Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, West Lothian, East Ayrshire, Inverclyde and South Ayrshire.
Two authorities were judged to have major weaknesses and another seven important weaknesses. Only two had achieved continuous improvement. And there was a particular variation in how well authorities evaluated their own performance: seven had seriously over-estimated it.
However, the inspectors acknowledged that follow-up reports led to improvements. At least five councils parted company with their education directors after an adverse inspection. This issue was picked up by John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, who pointed out that none of the follow-up inspections reported that authorities which had weaknesses had made no progress at all.
But the report noted that smaller authorities were vulnerable to changes in key members of senior management, which could lead to "loss of direction, disruption to implementation of key policies and uncertainty for centrally-deployed staff and, ultimately, for schools".
Mr Stodter drew attention to the differing circumstances of authorities, which was also underlined in the inspection report. Over half of Glasgow's population fell into the 15 per cent most deprived postcodes in Scotland, as did at least a quarter of the areas in Dundee, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.
The ADES general secretary took issue with comparisons between authorities, not just for those reasons but also because the inspectorate had changed its standards and processes over time.
"There is no doubt that education authorities which were inspected in the later INEA stages had to pass a stiffer test than did those at the beginning," he said. "The bar was definitely raised."
* The HMIE report can be read in full on www.tes.co.ukscotland
How authorities can add value
provide support and direction to pre-school centres
ensure each new initiative is backed by a full staff development programme
hold regular events at which good practice is demonstrated
bring in expertise and materials from other authorities and organisations
second effective teachers to be curriculum advisers and to improve classroom practice
identify subject co-ordinators and second them for a few days each year to bring together leaders of specific subjects to share expertise
establish experienced support team for special needs pupils and those teaching them in mainstream schools
set up resource centres or online services for curriculum and staff development.
Evidence of improvement
Attainment in primaries went up nationally and in almost all authorities in reading, writing and maths from 2000-04, by as much as 10 percentage points;
attainment in S1S2 reading, writing and maths increased by up to 20 per cent over the five years;
the number of pupils gaining at least five-plus awards at Standard grade 1-2Intermediate 2 A-C by the end of S6 rose from 39 per cent to 47 per cent during 2000-05, and up to 70 per cent in some authorities;
the Programme for International Student Assessment 2003 report showed Scottish 15-year-olds performing significantly above the OECD average in reading, mathematical and scientific literacies.BUT there has been no increase in the number of pupils with more than one, three or five Higher passes by the end of S6;
in some authorities, the attainment of the lowest performing 20 per cent of S4 pupils had not improved significantly;
the attainment of 16 and 17-year-olds leaving care with at least one Standard grade 5-6Access 3 had increased only very slightly from 42 per cent in 2003-04 to 45 per cent in 2004-05.