MIDLOTHIAN has been given a fulsome report card in HMI's latest inspection of an education authority. Of 11 quality indicators used by the inspectorate as its yardstick, nine were found to be "good", the second highest category.
The council's mind might have been concentrated, however, by awareness of the impending visitors since HMI noted: "The education division's clear commitment to developing and improving provision has been given a stronger focus over the past year."
Midlothian has in effect passed the test of whether it "adds value" to its schools, the main thrust behind the inspections. This is despite its position as the second smallest mainland council in Scotland (it has just six secondary schools).
The inspectors' judgments could not have been more unequivocal. "Aims and objectives were underpinned by good approaches to strategic and operational planning. Plans were used effectively by senior education managers to monitor progress in implementing projects.
"In the context of an overarching vision of promoting social inclusion and raising attainment, development projects were well focused on the needs of Midlothian schools and their pupils."
The report continues: "The director of education had actively and successfully promoted positive working relationships and effective partnerships with a range of agencies. These were notable characteristics of the work of the authority.
"The education division was generally effective in maintaining ood communications with its schools. Its commitment to consulting with stakeholders was not in doubt."
Communications with parents and pupils needed to be improved, however, and the report rates it as merely "fair". This was also the view of the quality of financial management which was criticised by 69 per cent of primary heads and 84 per cent of secondary heads. The report said heads received insufficient support from the authority for managing their devolved budgets.
But neither of these deficiencies affected HMI's view of the man in charge. Donald MacKay, Midlothian's director of education, is lauded for his "accessibility, approachability and close personal involvement in the work of the division". He had to spend a significant amount of time on operational matters, however, because the authority is so small, although this also chimes with his leadership style, the report says.
Mr MacKay was particularly happy that HMI had singled out for praise the authority's promotion of the arts as a vehicle to boost pupils' achievements. Initiatives in quality development and good staff development were also endorsed.
Midlothian will draw up an action plan within eight weeks to address some of the shortcomings. These tend to be weaknesses flagged up in a range of HMI reports, such as the need for more rigour in monitoring school and pupil performance, better support for information and communications technology and improvements in property maintenance.