Geraldine Hackett reports on OFSTED findings in three local education authority inspections.
PROBLEMS with under-performing schools persist in relatively affluent Derbyshire and Oxfordshire, even though both education authorities are well run, according to inspectors.
Labour-controlled Derbyshire has 13 primary schools and three secondaries on the failing list. Oxfordshire has eight, but inspectors say there is substantial underperformance in too many schools.
Inspectors suggest that Oxfordshire's problems stem in part from the fact that no political party has been in overall control for the past 15 years.
In the past, schools have been resistant to such national initiatives as testing and the council has been unable to take decisive action or provide county-wide guidance.
However, inspectors say changes have been made by Graham Badman, the chief education officer since 1996, which provide a clearer strategy for school improvement.
The report praises the education authority for being lean and well run. For several years, education has been funded below the level indicated by central government and some schools see this as a significant factor in explaining poor results.
The paucity of funding has had an impact on the size of classes in junior schools; the physical state of schools and the lack of adequate support for computer technology, says the report.
Overall, tests results are at or above the national average, but inspectors identify disparities between schools that cannot be ex-plained by pupil intakes.
According to inspectors, the education department has made raising attainment central to its planning and provides a range of high quality, self-critical support services.
Derbyshire still funds its schools at a higher level than the Govenment recommends, but over the past 10 years it has moved from a position where it was a high spender by national standards to one where it is lower than most other areas. Its spending was capped by the Conservatives and it has not had significant reserves.
Derbyshire no longer includes Derby City, which became a unitary authority in 1997. The main effect of the reorganisation has been that the county has lost its ethnic diversity. Less than 1 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities.
Inspectors say the services to schools are solid. In the main, councillors do an effective job, but levels of delegation to officers are not high.
However, the county faces the difficult challenge of a relatively high number of failing schools. The support being provided is expensive, but of the seven schools visited inspectors found one had been given ineffective help and in another two the extra assistance was only satisfactory.
The report commends the education development plan for providing an effective strategy, but says it takes too little account of the needs of small schools.
Almost a quarter of the county's 363 primaries have fewer than 90 pupils.
THE INSPECTORS' VERDICTS.
Oxfordshire's strengths: officers' policy advice; provision of effective services; support for the literacy and numeracy strategies; support for school development.
Oxfordshire's weaknesses: challenging schools and setting demanding targets; oversight by councillors of school improvement; support to failing schools.
Derbyshire's strengths: support for literacy; support for target-setting; preparation of school organisation plans.
Derbyshire's weaknesses: support for governing bodies; support for information and communication technology; maintenance of school buildings.