Senior education officials and councillors in Moray have taken the rap for falling standards in primary, the first two years of secondary and key national examination areas.
A highly critical inspection that rates the authority as only fair says there is no coherent strategy to raise attainment and tackle underachievement. "Staff at all levels had been slow to take action in the face of a downward trend in attainment levels at 5-14 in relation to comparator and national averages," inspectors report.
Targets in reading, writing and mathematics have not been met and those set for next year are said to be "unambitious". The most able secondary pupils are not reaching their potential, a point missed by the department.
"Overall, there was a lack of progress in raising attainment and no clear strategies to do so. Approaches to recognising and sharing success were low key. Only half of those responding to the pre-inspection survey indicated that senior managers recognised and celebrated success," HMI states.
It concludes that the education department has a "considerable way to go to consistently add value to the work of its schools" and that councillors, senior officials and headteachers have a "major task to raise expectations and improve pupil performance".
Moray advertises itself as one of the finest places to stay and work in Scotland, "underpinned by high quality and efficient council services". But the inspectors disagree and place it close to the foot of the unofficial league table of performance, awarding it two goods, eight fairs and one unsatisfactory - for failing to improve performance continuously.
Peter Peacock, Education Minister, said: "This is a very disappointing report which raises serious issues that I will want to discuss with the council. I expect urgent action from the council in preparing its action plan to achieve improvement in performance."
In reply, the authority accepted there were "significant opportunities for improvement" but highlighted a series of very good and positive reports on individual schools. The overall quality of education was good and the education service was highly regarded by the community.
"This was confirmed by the survey of stakeholders which was carried out as part of the inspection," it states.
Inspectors say that the senior management team under Donald Duncan, the education director, has been slow to develop procedures and initiatives that could make a genuine and consistent impact in schools. Senior managers are approachable, committed and hard-working but "had not been fully successful in winning the support of all staff in establishments".
The report adds that Mr Duncan's work had not been reviewed by the council and that he should be set clear performance targets. Councillors had failed to challenge officers.
They are also said to have "an overly optimistic perception of performance across and within Moray schools" and are accused of ducking difficult school closure decisions. Eighty-five per cent of primaries are less than 80 per cent full compared with a national average of 68 per cent. Further sharp declines in school rolls will exacerbate the problem, inspectors point out.
"Overall, there was a need for stronger political and professional leadership to articulate key priorities and refocus the service," HMI states.
On the positive side, Moray is praised for its excellent support for pupils with special educational needs - only a few are placed outwith the authority. Its ICT training programme for teachers is also commended as is its financial reporting.
Inspectors will revisit within a year to check progress. But first the authority must submit an action plan within two months, spelling out how it is to address the key concerns of HMI.
As highlighted in last week's TES Scotland, Moray is to bring in consultants to make recom-mendations for refocusing the department. It is likely to employ former officials from other authorities.