Knowsley and Swindon took different approaches to school improvement. Michael Shaw reports
Two very different English local authorities have been praised by inspectors for turning round their work in very different ways.
While Swindon has privatised its services, Knowsley has launched a barrage of imaginative initiatives including giving pupils "chill-out" CDs to help them relax.
The two councils have little in common, save that they have been criticised by inspectors in the past and they cater for 29,000 pupils.
Knowsley is a northern conurbation near Liverpool with some of the worst levels of unemployment and deprivation in the country, while Swindon is a booming southern town with a higher-than-average proportion of children from middle-class families.
When Swindon's education authority was last inspected in 2001 it was rated as very poor and was forced to contract out its services to a private company.
A report published today by the Office for Standards in Education concluded that contractors from the Tribal Group have helped the authority make "highly satisfactory" progress over the two years. The improvement is believed to be the fastest yet made by an authority which has privatised services.
John Simpson, Tribal's director of education, said: "Dealing with an education authority where the performance is poor is relatively easy because you can get results quickly through actions like getting rid of people. Improving where the performance is average can be be more difficult."
While inspectors described the work as promising, they said a further inspection would be needed before Tribal's contract ended.
The inspectors also found weaknesses with Swindon council, which has had no political party in overall control since May 2000.
"Officers, elected members and schools lack a common understanding of the council's priorities and within these, the part played by education," Ofsted said.
In contrast, inspectors were impressed by how well councillors in Knowsley supported improvements, praising their enthusiasm and good leadership.
The northern authority received a critical Ofsted report in 1999 and has been close to the bottom of GCSE tables. Inspectors said this week that it had been transformed over three years. They added: "It has shown how vision and leadership, together with excellent relationships with schools, can revive an education service."
Ofsted said the authority's success had been partly down to a range of high-profile and well-thought-through initiatives. These included a scheme which gave GCSE pupils CDs of relaxing music, a revision-related soap opera delivered by text message, and access to exam practice websites.
The authority's GCSE results improved this year at a rate 17 times that of the national average.
Steve Munby, Knowsley's education director, said: "Our top priority has been raising self-esteem and aspirations. We've tried to lift the profile of education in any way we can - whether that's been putting up banners, giving pupils CDs or going for rides in hot air balloons."
HEAD TO HEAD
Primary pupils on free meals
13 per cent 46.9 per cent
Total school population
Description of area
"The economy is buoyant" "Considerable deprivation"
LEA spend per primary pupil
LEA spend per secondary pupil
Schools in special measures
Schools with serious weakness
Number of strengths
49 per cent 33.6 per cent
Five A* to C GCSEs
Council control No political party has control Labour