AN independent review of secondaries' performance in Clackmannanshire will be studied more closely than ever after HMI this week heavily criticised the failure of education officials and schools themselves to address steadily falling attainment.
In May, Labour regained control from the SNP of the country's smallest authority and launched an investigation into shortcomings among the three secondaries at Alloa, Lornshill - where Jack McConnell, the First Minister, once taught - and Alva. Two of the heads are no longer in post.
Inspectors say that "serious weaknesses" remain in exam performance, which is below that of similar authorities and well below national averages. None of the targets for 5-14 performance had been met, although the first signs of improvement are evident.
Anticipating the judgment, the council opened an inquiry itself and has consulted with senior managers in schools and classroom teachers to establish ways to lift achievement. A report by Tony Gavin, retired head of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, is due in late October.
Brian Fearon, convener of learning and leisure, said: "Nothing in this report was a surprise to any of us, which showed that we had a very clear view of the progress that we have made and the changes we need to make to continue being successful."
The inspectors place Clackmannanshire in the bottom third of the unofficial TES Scotland league table of local authority performance after awarding it one very good, four goods and and six fairs. They say that there is "still some way to go for the authority to consistently add value to the work of schools and to secure improvements in pupils' attainment".
Their report adds: "Leadership of educational services in Clackmannanshire has been seriously disrupted by changes in senior managers and a period of reorganisation. This lack of consistent leadership had serious consequences in preventing or stalling key developments, particularly in taking action on weaknesses in secondary schools and developing a quality assurance framework for all schools."
Inspectors comment on the difficulties of such a small authority and highlight the lack of central staff to manage education services, a point that is being tackled.
Leadership and management are described as only fair by the inspectors.
They emphasise that Dave Jones, director of services to people, had only been in post for 18 months after taking over from Keir Bloomer, who moved on to become the authority's chief executive. The new team of senior managers had also been in post for less than a year.
"They brought energy and commitment to the remits and were working together to address the weaknesses in education. They had succeeded in winning the respect of staff in their establishments, elected members and school boards," HMI states.
Despite the criticism, inspectors commend the authority for its primary innovation and strong rates of improvement. Clackmannanshire has pioneered the synthetic phonics approach to reading and pupils are said to be months ahead of their expected reading age and making similar progress in maths and thinking skills.
Other positives are effective pre-school services, joint work on drugs and sex education, and the quality of support to young people in need.
Mainstreaming of pupils with special educational needs is a further strength.
Mr Jones said there were signs of a turnaround in exam performance. "This year we have had 15 per cent more young people gaining five Credits at Standard grade, which is a 2.7 per cent rise. It is a significant move forward and I would pay tribute to the programmes of mentoring that schools have put in place."
Danny Murphy, director of the Scottish Qualification for Headship at Edinburgh University, will shortly move back into the front line when he takes over at Lornshill Academy.
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