Support for schools, literacy and numeracy and special needs were all described as "strengths". Director of learning Paul Lincoln was a very strong leader, and there was praise for the whole senior management team.
The authority also won plaudits for managing the three-quarters of its secondary schools that were formerly grant-maintained. However, local teacher recruitment and retention problems were "inhibiting" improvements at the county's worst-performing schools.
There was praise too for Southampton where inspectors said strong politial leadership and good senior managers had brought the authority to the brink of success. But sharper planning was needed to make it excellent.
The port city - deeply disadvantaged in some areas - has primary schools that are improving fast but secondary schools that are not.
The gap between the local and national proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in maths and English was cut by about half last year. But at GCSE, improvement rates were below-average, particularly among boys.
Funding for education had increased every year since the authority was established in 1997.
Support for attendance was unsatisfactory because of a shortage of educational welfare officers but schools were beginning to notice an improvement, inspectors said.