THE Inspectorate has now delivered a hat trick of glowing verdicts on the leadership of three education authorities. The latest, however, provoked a less than glowing response from local politicians.
Aberdeenshire followed East Renfrewshire and West Lothian in inviting HMI to scrutinise quality assurance procedures. It is likely to be the last such report before the Education Bill makes across-the-board inspections mandatory.
HMI praises Michael White, Aberdeenshire's director of education and recreation, as open, consultative and approachable. He has "very effectively projected his clear, unambiguous vision of the direction in which he wished the service to develop".
Eleanor Currie and Roger Stewart, Mr White's counterparts in East Renfrewshire and West Lothian, were commended in almost identical terms.
Mr White's particular vision is of a service that meets educational and recreational needs on a lifelong basis, with collaboration between schools, community education and recreation professionals. This was "generally well understood by staff across the authority", inspectors stated.
Mr White also earns a tribute in the report for "his political insight and skills in developing good working relationships and in promoting teamwork".
The result was good staff morale despite a period of considerable job cuts and the effects of reorganisation.
The inspectors - who visited 24 schools, met staff and attended a series of meetings - expressed their confidence in "well-planned and effective initiatives" to improve the quality of education for all pupils.
The main weakness, as ever, was in S2 where performance in reading, writing and maths is below the national average and where the gap with primary pupils' attainment is greater than in Scotland as a whole.
The main message for Aberdeenshire on the quality front is to refine and improve still further its monitoring, analysing and reporting of school performance. HMI also notes the strong focus on giving local communities an opportunity to shape education and recreation services.
Inspectors were particularly impressed by LEaRNS, the "potentially fruitful" local education and recreation networks based on Aberdeenshire's 16 secondary schools and say they are the epitome of Mr White's approach to consultation and integration.
The impact of these networks on the broader community beyond the school was variable but they were beginning to develop "a sense of purpose and identity", the report states.
Another "notable" feature of the authority's consultative approach was the "day school liaison group" which brought together unions, headteachers and education officials.
The Liberal DemocratIndependent-run council welcomed the report but Alan Findlay, its education chairman, pointedly remarked: "Given the severe cuts in services and reduction in officials in earlier years, it is all the more remarkable what the council and its staff have achieved."
Aberdeenshire is one of three councils whose spending has been judged excessive by Jack McConnell, the Finance Minister, who claims it is 2.08 per cent above the guideline figure, the equivalent of pound;5.6 million.
Officials estimate that, combined with the need for annual savings, this could lead to cuts of up to pound;12 million in next year's overall council budget.
"There is no way quality services can continue to be preserved," Mr Findlay said. "It is ironic that HM inspectors are telling us ways to strengthen our existing services when a lot of them will not be there next year because of Government-enforced cuts."