THE Western Isles has received an ambivalent HMI report which concludes that the authority's education department "had significant scope to add more value to the work of its schools".
But it is commended for taking steps to address its shortcomings, chief of which was "lack of a sufficiently strong strategic direction".
Murdo Macleod, director of education, welcomed HMI's acknowledgement that the Western Isles was "an improving authority with many initiatives still to have their full impact". No aspects were found to be unsatisfactory.
But none of the 11 activities used by HMI to measure quality was in the very good category either. Three were good and eight were fair - a verdict which puts the Western Isles fourth bottom of 14 authorities inspected so far.
The report says that the steps taken to improve the running of the service "had yet to become fully embedded in the department's work and, as a result, the benefits to pupils and their parents were often not yet apparent".
As with many HMI reports, the council is found to have provided good support to schools but too little challenge. "In primary schools approaches to raising attainment more widely had lacked a clear rationale based on the analysis of evidence of performance from across the authority, and hence had lacked focus and direction," the report states.
"While schools appreciated the support they received from centrally deployed staff, this had not always addressed the key issues or provided sufficient challenge. Raising expectations and improving the performance of less able pupils needed to be key priorities for improvement."
The report adds: "The education department had a number of challenges to further improve the quality of education in its schools. (It) was now taking some useful steps to improve its support for schools but, as yet, there was still insufficient attention paid to the need to challenge aspects of school performance rigorously and consistently."
The inspectors found that the authority was not even sufficiently well informed about the performance of its schools. There were substantial differences in a number of cases between its own evaluations of individual schools and the findings of HMI inspections.
None the less 80 per cent of headteachers thought the education department was helping schools to improve. Pupils' attainment at all stages was above national levels.
But the leadership and management of the education service was judged to be only fair, too preoccupied with operational detail and not enough with setting a strategic direction. Senior managers were described as "generally reactive and responsive" rather than proactive in making their expectations clear.
Mr Macleod himself, however, emerges rather well. He was found to be "approachable, supportive and accessible". He enjoyed "very positive relationships" with councillors and headteachers and was considered to have dealt "sensitively, firmly and effectively" with school closures.
It was council policy on closures rather than the director's personal qualities which led to criticisms. The number of primary schools had been reduced from 57 to 39 in the past 14 years and the number of secondary schools from 16 to 11 over the past 10 years. In the three years Mr Macleod has been acting director and then director, this task had proved "exceptionally time-consuming and had been completed at some expense to the leadership of wider issues across the authority".
Mr Macleod had anticipated the criticisms by restructuring the department to ensure, among other things, that more attention is paid to the monitoring of quality in the work of schools.
Headteachers, whose verdicts on their councils' performance have proved critical in influencing HMI judgments, were supportive. But, while 77 per cent agreed council policies were appropriate to their needs, only 48 per cent said these were backed up by clear procedures for putting them into action. Consultation was said to be improving.
* Planning for improvement.
* Productive links with Lews Castle College.
* A responsive directorate and council staff.
* Good quality enterprise education.
* Good support for pre-school education.
* Quality of support for Gaelic-medium education.
* Improvements in primary performance in reading and writing.