SUNDERLAND'S failure to spend up to its central government allocation for education has left some schools doubting its commitment.
But the education authority has the capacity to further improve its contribution to schools' performance, and its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, according to the Office for Standards in Education.
The Wearside metropolitan authority - which serves one of the most deprived areas in the country - has welcomed the inspection agency's 50-page report, describing it as "generally balanced and fair".
The inspection, carried out in conjunction with the Audit Commission, highlights a need for a re-think on forward planning and management issues.
The education authority's spending per pupil on strategic management is half the national average, and senior officers - heavily burdened with work, including the servicing of two committees - need more time for strategic thinking.
Schools welcome the authority's commitment to raising attainment, but do not understand its "leadership in partnership" catchphrase, says OFSTED. The authority has not defined what this means, and needs to be explicit about the respective roles and responsibilities of schools and itself in school improvement.
The authority has made effective contributions in numeracy, provision for under-fives, and supporting schools with serious weaknesses. But the general effectiveness of its support for schools is varied because it is not geared closely enough to schools' needs.
Sunderland is also reportedly lagging behind when it comes to helping schools with target setting and understanding and using performance data.
"The education authority is well led and has the capacity for further improvement, given the whole-hearted commitment of elected members. Some schools doubt that commitment because the authority chooses to spend below its (education) standard spending assessment. A detailed analysis suggests that this view is not entirely fair," says the report.
Dr John Williams, Sunderland's education director, said: "The report paints a positive picture of the education authority at a time of great change. The overall verdict might be: 'seven out of 10, trying hard and making real progress! The inspectors clearly feel we have to look more closely at the level of support we give schools and the understandings we have about each other's part of the bargain."
Sunderland's education committee chairman, Ron Hunter, said: "We are very grateful for the work of the inspectors. It is very valuable to have a fresh pair of eyes looking at how well we are doing."