Home turf excellence
The upbeat verdict comes ahead of the move to Livingston by HMI's headquarters as part of the Scottish Executive's contentious policy on relocation of government agencies.
With only five more of Scotland's 32 authorities to be inspected, the council has come close to the top of the unofficial league table after receiving what it terms an "excellent report card". Inspectors award it eight very goods and three goods in the table of quality indicators.
In particular, they praise the council for its "very strong leadership".
Kate Reid, its education director, Alex Linkston, chief executive, and Carol Bartholomew, convener of children's services and lifelong learning, are picked out for special mention. Other senior managers are commended for gaining the support of schools and making a difference to the prospects of children.
Almost all headteachers (93 per cent) felt the authority's officials were helping them to improve the quality of education.
Union leaders have not always shared that confidence and mocked the council for its pioneering restructuring of promoted posts in secondary. But inspectors see it differently and believe the authority has taken "decisive steps" in its approach to implementing the teachers' agreement.
HMI comments: "The new structure of posts being introduced into secondary schools was designed to increase the focus on assuring quality in learning, teaching, attainment and achievement, and to meet the expectations of the national priorities. There were early indications of the positive impact of these developments."
Yet it is among the council's primaries that inspectors identify the biggest advances with rates of improvement in attainment above comparator authorities and the national average. Recent inspections on 15 schools have highlighted positive developments.
HMI believes there are slightly more issues for secondaries and calls on them to raise attainment in national exams, particularly in S5 and S6. A continuing difficulty for the authority has been to persuade young people to stay in education when jobs are readily available in expanding communities.
Key strengths, according to the inspectors, are clarity of aims and vision for education, innovative approaches to increasing the capacity of schools and the drive to raise attainment. Council managers are effective leaders - and approachable with it. Pre-inspection reports show schools have a good grasp of progress.
Among other areas commended is the authority's "outstanding range of opportunities" for pupil achievements to be recognised at national and international level. "Well-planned opportunities to celebrate achievements included the 'Best in the West' sports awards ceremony and an outstanding concert held in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh," HMI reports.
Areas that slightly colour the inspectors' judgments are provision for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and the rate of development in integrated community schools.
Inspectors are also pressing for a more systematic way to offer advice to schools to ensure that key policies make an impact on pupils.