Local councils must take action to improve GCSE performance, school attendance and the education of looked-after children, Ofsted said today.
Inspectors identified a "worrying gap" between the best and worst-performing councils but rated education as better than other children's services.
Almost half of councils in England need to improve education for 14 to 16-year-olds and reduce the gap between high and low-achieving pupils. A third fail to ensure children attend school regularly. And educational support for children in care varies widely across the country. Three out of 10 local authorities exclude too many pupils from school and a similar number need to improve education for 11 to 14-year-olds.
In an interview with The TES, Maurice Smith, chief inspector of schools, warned of a "degree of drift" in the early years of secondary school, although he admitted his experience as a father had taught him that part of the problem may be due to adolescence.
LEAs have a vital role to play in improving options for older pupils by bringing together schools, colleges and employers to provide vocational options, he said.
Educational provision for 14 to 16-year-olds is good in 40 per cent of councils and two out of five have effective strategies to improve attendance.
The report, published by Ofsted and the Commission for Social Care Inspection, praised York for its anti-bullying strategy which has helped boost attendance. An anonymous questionnaire completed by 3-4,000 pupils every year allows schools to measure progress on bullying and compare themselves with other schools.
Three-quarters of local authorities provide education services consistently above the minimum expected, Ofsted found. Almost two-thirds provide a similar level of social care services for children.
The report said: "In the best examples, there is a strong and positive partnership with schools and support services which is built on shared and aspirational targets for improvement."
Councils were praised for the support they offer primary pupils, with two out of five taking appropriate action to improve standards for 11-year-olds. Almost two-thirds offer at least adequate and often good or very good early-years education.
Mr Smith said improvements in primary achievements due to the national literacy and numeracy strategies "should not be underestimated".
Bexley council has introduced initiatives designed to provide early support for children at risk of underachieving. A joint health and education communication team gives children early access to speech and language therapy.
Annual performance assessment: Local authority children's services 2005 is available from www.ofsted.gov.uk