On the TES Scotland score card, the authority notches up 40 points on the 11 quality indicators used by the inspectorate to assess effectiveness, compared with Inverclyde's 39. Seven aspects earn the top rating of very good, and four are good.
Mike McCabe, director of education, who was the given the high-profile job of chairing the committee that came to the Scottish Executive's rescue by producing new sex education guidelines in the wake of the Section 28 controversy, provides "very good leadership".
The report states that Mr McCabe "had been instrumental in ensuring that the department and schools across the authority had a very clear sense of direction. He very effectively combined his strategic management role with a well-judged involvement in operational matters. Evidence of this was seen in the responses of headteachers to the questions in the pre-inspection survey issued to all councils in advance of an inspection. In South Ayrshire, the overall responses by heads of establishments were notably more positive than the norms for similar surveys."
Mr McCabe was described as having worked "tenaciously and successfully to encourage elected members to give appropriately high priority to quality development in education". He was approachable and accessible and took decisive action when required.
Other officers in the department are generally given high marks and inspectors were unable to find any headteacher in the pre-inspection survey who disagreed with the view that "senior managers showed a high level of commitment to promoting quality". The only flaws uncovered were largely ones that cause national concern - improvements required in S1 and S2, better training for teachers in the uses of technology, further steps to enhance staff development and more effective delegation of budgets to schools.
Even in those areas rated as merely "good", such as deployment of education department staff, HMI's judgment is that "performance was good and improving". The education department, the report states, "was well aware of priorities on which to focus".
The key finding, however, is that South Ayrshire's existence is justified, not always a conclusion that could be drawn from reports on other authorities. "Its provision of support and challenge was clearly adding value to the work of schools in raising attainment and promoting social inclusion," HMI states.
Sadie Bowie, convener of the council's lifelong learning committee, said:
"The council will now ensure that the standards achieved are maintained, and will prioritise improvements in certain areas."