EDUCATION INSPECTORS have slated the leadership and direction of education services in Aberdeen City Council as "weak".
The council has undergone the most radical restructuring of any authority - doing away with traditional departments and replacing them with three neighbour-hood divisions, each administered by a director.
But, while HM Inspectorate of Education acknow-ledges the council's "aspirational agenda" and the "bold decisions" it has taken to break through to new levels of performance, it says that the commitment to change has been "mixed". Five aspects of the education functions are described as "good", with a further four no more than "adequate", in a report this week.
A key challenge was closing the gap between the high aspirations for consistency of performance and the realities of the outcomes being achieved.
Inspectors praised work in areas such as the arts and culture, sport and outdoor pursuits and physical activity, Scottish Qualifications Authority exam results at secondary level, family learning initiatives, and the authority's approach to implementing the Additional Support for Learning and Race Equality acts.
But they highlighted low morale, motivation and workload issues among centrally deployed staff; long-standing weaknesses in terms of pre-school provision, and for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties; poor self-evaluation; above average rates of pupil exclusions in primary and secondary; and the need to establish continuing professional development pathways across services to develop leadership capacity and integrate service delivery.
The report describes the transition to the new staffing arrangements and changed structure as "difficult", adding: "A high proportion of staff and key partners, including parents and school boards, were uncertain of roles, responsibilities and remits."
It also focuses on the additional role of heads within the new neighbourhood partnerships, saying: "Headteachers had a key role to play in grasping their extended leadership roles."
While new appointments within the centre of the council had the potential to release the ideas and talents of all staff, the council had to develop leadership capacity at all levels and a more rigorous approach to ensuring consistency of provision within and across establishments, services and directorates.
Douglas Paterson, chief executive of Aberdeen City Council and architect of the radical changes, said: "This in-spection will prove to be an important milestone on a journey towards consistently high achievement.
"I am pleased that inspectors have recognised that their visit has taken place at a key point in time during the council's ambitious programme of reform - and pleased to report that, if they returned today, they would already see very significant and measurable progress being made on key challenges."
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and education director at Aberdeen prior to the departmental restructuring, said: "Obviously, the whole service has gone through a time of major change and it is worrying that HMIE has found a lack of leadership and direction. In the previous report, this was described as well managed - "good with very good features".
* HMIE's second round inspection of the education services of Dumfries and Galloway Council also damns its leaders with faint praise, describing its "leadership and direction" and "leadership of change and improvement" as no more than "adequate". Three other aspects of its performance are also deemed "adequate", while the remaining five are "good".
Its previous report in 2005, before the current six-point evaluation scale was introduced, described "mechanisms for consultation" as "very good" and all other aspects as "good".
Inspectors this time identified as key strengths the improving trends and quality of education in primary schools and the quality of pre-school provision; multi-agency working; the establishment of a strong ethos of inclusion; very effective support for some groups of young people with additional support needs; the development of enterprise education, health, sport, culture and the arts; and the introduction of a sound quality im-provement framework for evaluating the work of schools. Create, the Creative Education Arts Team, the authority's implementation of the Youth Music Initiative, and its active schools work, were highlighted as good practice.
However, there needed to be a clearer policy development framework and a clearer link between schools and community learning and development; attainment and overall quality of provision in the secondary sector had to be raised; and the council had to address the challenges of demographic change and falling rolls, and faced challenging decisions regarding budget pressures.
Sandra McDowall, chair of education and community services, said: "While this report shows clear progress in some areas and some good practice that we would like to encourage and retain, there is obviously still more to be done. We now want the new council to build on our strengths to address the outcomes of the report."