Several local authorities still have "some way to go to reach acceptable levels" of performance and are failing to improve schools, inspectors say.
As South Lanarkshire this week moved to the top of the unofficial league table with a sparkling HMI report, Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, was yesterday (Thursday) telling education directors at a national conference in Perth of "significant weaknesses" in checking schools' progress in just under half the councils inspected.
In an analysis of the first batch of reports on education departments, inspectors also say that in some authorities overall leadership and management have "yet to have significant impact on achieving continuous improvement for young people".
HMI told directors at their annual conference last November that 26 per cent of authorities were rated very good, 47 per cent good, 22 per cent fair and 5 per cent unsatisfactory. Their finding was based on 19 inspections, curiously three more than the evidence for the report released this week.
Despite the shortcomings, HMI concludes that most authorities are making a difference to the experiences and achievements of young people in schools and adding value.
The official verdict on leadership comes on top of biting criticism by Douglas Osler, the retired senior chief inspector and TES Scotland columnist, who last month slammed the quality of political and personal leadership in authorities.
There were few outstanding officials in education directorates and restricting applications during local government reorganisation to existing directors "circulated mediocrity", Mr Osler said.
Now inspectors report a mixed picture of progress since they launched their investigations into local authorities three years ago.
They state: "While there is evidence to suggest that the strongest performing councils are adding value, not all of the procedures and arrangements established by authorities have a clear enough positive impact on young people and their families.
"A key issue for consideration is that, although many well-established and improving processes are in place, the extent to which these have a clear and demonstrable impact remains variable. A main factor in identifying the most effective authorities is the extent to which processes drive practice in schools."
HMI questions how well authorities are doing in benchmarking themselves against others and whether they are learning enough about effective practice.
"In particular, weaknesses were identified across a number of councils in measuring, monitoring and evaluating performance and in resource and financial management," Mr Donaldson comments.
He believes, however, that there is "encouraging evidence" from many authorities that they have tackled the weaknesses identified by the inspectors in their initial reports.
Inspection teams have taken a great interest in processes and procedures but the fundamental test of best practice remains the impact on children and young people and their families, Mr Donaldson stresses.
Key factors in strong authorities are clear strategic views, commitment to work across departments, robust administrative and financial procedures, rigorous approaches to quality improvement and, "perhaps most important of all", high quality leadership at different levels.
Colin Dalrymple, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said that education was the most monitored and inspected of all departments in the public sector but still came out consistently well.
"The biggest improvement in local authorities has come through the rigorous process of self-evaluation and the action taken. It is heartening to know that a large proportion of quality indicators are in the good or very good category and it is very evident that where there have been difficulties in authorities, major improvements have been made," Mr Dalrymple said.
Mr Dalrymple, depute director in Edinburgh, one of the more recently inspected authorities, said: "It confirms what we have always known, that education is in safe hands."
One concern for authorities, however, was the time and commitment of senior managers who are involved in school closures. Inspections may not always have allowed for this.
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