Aiming higher wins HMI's praise
It has emerged as the country's top authority at the halfway stage in the review of all 32 council education departments by Her Majesty's Inspectors and the Accounts Commission.
The fourth largest council in Scotland, which has significant deprivation indices, is celebrating nine very good and two good verdicts in the 11 quality indicators used by HMI - a total of 42 points out of a possible 44 in the unofficial TES Scotland rankings.
Inspectors have heaped praise on the innovative authority which is home to Jack McConnell, the First Minister. Local politicians will be equally relieved that their authority is in the national limelight for positive reasons and not, as it was five years ago, for the bad press associated with its direct labour organisation.
Its education department has restored faith in local government to deliver high-quality services to communities still scarred by unemployment and poverty. Only last week Boots announced it is to shed 1,000 jobs in Airdrie.
Councillors are commended for addressing the many social and economic difficulties and ensuring education enjoys a high priority, backed by above average resources. "Parents and pupils benefited from very good levels of staffing and resources," inspectors report.
They single out Michael O'Neill, the education director, and Christine Pollock, his depute, for their crucial part. Mr O'Neill had "the ability to inspire staff and had earned the respect and confidence of elected members". Under his "astute leadership", the authority had developed its flagship Raising Achievement for All policy.
"The director of education had a high profile and provided very good leadership by setting a very clear direction for the education service in conjunction with elected members. His enthusiasm and commitment set the tone for the whole department. A very strong team spirit was evident among staff at all levels in the department and in schools," inspectors comment.
Mr O'Neill was "very ably supported not only by the highly effective depute director but also by other senior officers" who created "an ethos of trust" with staff and parents.
The success of this partnership and the "ethos of trust" was one of the most pleasing aspects of the report, Mr O'Neill said, given the complexity of an authority the size of North Lanarkshire. "It shows that there is a shared vision and that aiming higher and raising achievement are not just words."
Almost all headteachers - generally more than 90 per cent - felt the department communicated effectively, knew what was going on in their schools and had appropriate policies.
Attainment in primaries has been rising over the past three years and progress is ahead of comparable authorities, especially in reading and writing, where attainment is above the national average. Performance in maths was well above both the national average and the average of councils with similar socio-economic characteristics.
Secondaries appear to have more difficulties matching standards in S1 and S2 while student performance at Standard grade was consistently below the national average, although in line with similar councils, as it is at Higher level.
Schools, though, are about more than exams and targets and the inspectors commend the authority's "very significant commitment to widening achievement", including its young people's entitlement to opportunities out of school in outdoor education, sport, music and other arts. "Collectively, these made an important contribution to lifelong learning," they state.