Around one in five Scottish local authorities has been classed as unsatisfactory or only fair by HMI. But over the past year more are improving.
Ian Gamble, chief inspector responsible for education department inspections, told the annual conference of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland that analysis of 19 inspections showed that 26 per cent of authorities were very good, 47 per cent good, 22 per cent fair and 5 per cent unsatisfactory.
Between last year and this year, however, the system was displaying marked improvement in the quality indicators. The number of those in the very good category had risen to 33 per cent, good was down to 45 per cent as a result and the numbers of fair and unsatisfactory were down to 19 per cent and 3 per cent.
So far, 20 reports have been published and five are due - Aberdeen, Moray, South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Falkirk. "Don't worry, we have not forgotten you," Mr Gamble told authorities that were still to be inspected.
The Scottish picture of initial inspections, piloted in 1998 and launched fully in 2000, contrasts with results south of the border where in the first tranche of 150 inspections between 1996 and 2001, only seven authorities were classed as very good and 22 good. Eighty were satisfactory.
Terry Holland, a senior inspector with the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), told directors: "One in three were unsatisfactory or poor and in a number of cases very poor."
But Mr Holland reported a sharp improvement in the second cycle of inspections that began last year. Many authorities with a low rating had improved significantly over the past five to six years. "Local education authorities say inspection does make a difference to their performance," he said.
He also reaffirmed evidence from the first inspections that there is "no proven relationship between the quality of an LEA and overall standards of attainment". Other factors, such as the effect of disadvantage, were stronger. Inspectors concluded that the expectation that education authorities should have a major effect on pupils' standards appeared unrealistic, Mr Holland said.
In a separate address, Mr Gamble said that Scottish authorities were often strong on vision, values and aims, and quality development and service planning. But when it came to improving performance they found it difficult to go from good to very good.
More mixed practice was evident in challenging schools and in measuring, monitoring and evaluating. "Sometimes it is the effectiveness of leadership. I stress that is not an evaluation of the director or directorate but a collective evaluation. We also take into account the leadership of elected members. It is an overall judgment and should not be personalised," Mr Gamble said.
The second cycle of inspections after 2005 would be "proportionate" because of the initial evidence gathered by HMI. "We want to make more use of self-evaluation. It is important it is rigorous and not based on self-deception. In one or two authorities, self-evaluation might have been close to a negotiating position," he said.