TENSIONS between local authority leaders and the inspectorate are set to rise after contrasting reports on Inverclyde and East Lothian education departments.
Of the six full reports since Her Majesty's Inspectors were given powers to monitor education authorities, Inverclyde comes out well ahead of the others with seven indicators classed as very good, three good and only one fair.
East Lothian, however, the centre of national attention two years ago following HMI's condemnation of Musselburgh Grammar, receives seven goods and four fairs. Nothing was deemed very good or unsatisfactory. The authority has eight weeks to produce an action plan to tackle weaknesses.
East Lothian has been at loggerheads with the inspectorate after the political flak it shipped over its high-profile assessment of Musselburgh. Council leaders are pressing for greater clarity and openness around the inspections.
One said: "I want to know who inspects the inspectors."
Not surprisingly, Inverclyde is basking in its moment of glory. The authority is highly praised for vision, leadership, communication, planning, knowledge of performance and ethos of achievement.
The inspectors state: "Despite an inheritance of largely difficult economic and social circumstances, improvement was evident over a wide front encompassing academic attainment and achievement in health education, business education, sport and the arts."
Bernard McLeary, director of education, was pleased the report showed a major impact on schools' improvement and attainment. "We seem to be good at promoting an ethos of achievement in the authority and we have made significant gains despite our socio-economic background," Mr McLeary said.
Almost all headteachers (98 per cent) agreed that senior managers communicated a clear vision for education and 87 per cent felt the department was effective in passing on good practice.
The one area singled out for particular action is the closure of schools because of falling local populations. In 1997, there were 3,600 surplus places in primary schools and 2,800 in secondary. The maintenance backlog is put at pound;60 million. "Elected members over several years had deferred key decisions," HMI points out.
The East Lothian report is more mixed. Leadership, policy development, consultation and monitoring of performance are said to be only fair. But John Ross, education convener, said: "It's hard on us in certain areas and I do not accept some of the criticism of leadership and management." Mr Ross admitted there had to be better communications with schools and parents and more common ownership of initiatives and policies.
Alan Blackie, education director, accepted the report as "a platform for improvement". Mr Blackie said: "We had a long debate with the inspectorate about some of their judgments and do not necessarily agree with all of them."
The report notes that 50 per cent of secondary heads (three out of six) and 32 per cent of primary heads disagreed that a clear overall vision for education had been established. "Below the level of headteacher, staff were less confident that the department had a clearly communicated vision," the inspectors state.
They conclude East Lothian provides high quality primary education for many of its pupils but that attainment in secondaries should rise further. Its sports development strategy is highly commended.
Inspection reports have already been published on Highland, East Dunbartonshire, Dundee and Midlothian. Shetland, Fife, Angus and North Ayrshire are presently under the microscope with Scottish Borders in the pipeline after its financial troubles.