Inspectors from Ofsted were left with a good impression when they visited the authority last year. They praised the management of the authority, its commitment to improving school standards and the fact that the education budget had increased by 20 per cent over four years. At the same time, however, they wanted to see improvements in the way Northamptonshire identifies and helps struggling schools.
Their main points were:
* There was a clarity of vision with school improvement at its heart, a strong commitment to working in partnership with schools and a determination to raise standards across the authority.
* The authority performed almost all of its functions satisfactorily and strengths considerably outweighed weaknesses.
* Pupils' results were above the national average in all main subjects at age seven, but only matched the national average for 11 and 14-year-olds. Pupils' progress between infant school and the third year of secondary school was below the national average. GCSE results were in line with national standards.
* Although the authority had a clear strategy for school improvement and was improving, they criticised procedures for identifying weaker schools and intervening to sort out problems.
* The contracted-out payroll service was plagued with errors and some staff had to wait too long.
* The work of senior officers and councillors was praised, as was the close working relationship with schools.
* Centrally-retained spending was very low.
* The change from a three to two-tier structure was "being managed very effectively".
* Northamptonshire's strategy to promote inclusiveness was "bold and innovative". All support for social inclusion and special educational needs has been brought together under a single department which promised to improve co-ordination. North-amptonshire's support for pupils with special educational needs, pupil attendance, its anti-racist policies and work with pupils from ethnic minorities and traveller children, were key strengths.
* The inspectors concluded that: "Northamptonshire has already demonstrated its ability to manage change effectively. The senior officers provide effective leadership and have the capacity and capability to address the recommendations made in this report."