Inspectors from the Office for Standards in education have found much to praise in their latest round of council reports.
A LOCAL authority's "galvanising" approach to education has been credited with helping its schools begin to recover from a seemingly hopeless position at the bottom of national league tables, writes Warwick Mansell.
Nottingham has been lauded by the Office for Standards in Education for contributing to some of the sharpest improvements nationally among tests for 11-year-olds.
In 1998, when Nottingham broke from Nottinghamshire to become a unitary authority, its schools' key stage 2 results were the worst in the country.
The Labour-controlled authority, which serves the 12th most deprived district in England, with unemployment at 8.1 per cent, had inherited a legacy of low attainment and depressed expectations in its schools.
This was compounded by the loss of 18 per cent of its 11-year-olds - mainly high achievers - every year to the independent sector, the city technology college, or schools outside the city.
Yet, two years on, the proportion of 11-year-olds achieving the expected level in English has climbed by 13 percentage points, and in maths, by 18 points - well above national gains. Improvement has also been marked, if less spectacular, at GCSE.
Inspectors put the rises down partly to a "mutually supportive and trusting" relationship Nottingham had forged with schools.
They described the city's numeracy strategy as outstanding and there was high-quality support too for literacy. The education action zone, in the city's tough Bulwell area, was making an impressive impact on standards.
The report concluded: "Strong corporate working combined with the determined, vigorous and uncompromising leadership of the education department, has ensured a galvanised approach to raising standards."
Although its strengths easily outweighed weaknesses, the authority urgently had to help the seven schools in special measures.
The proportion of spare secondary places was the second highest in England, while the authority's over-enthusiastic approach to reducing exclusions meant violent pupils were sometimes allowed to remain in school.
School management support
Use of performance data
Support for attendance
Control of surplus places
PUPILS in prosperous South Gloucestershire are not performing as well as they could - partly because the support provided to their schools by their local authority varies too much.
Inspectors found that advisory staff in the Liberal Democrat-controlled unitary authority had been unable to say why eight of its schools were identified as having difficulties.
Advice to heads and governors, though often good, was sometimes unwieldly, and there were also large variations in schools' use of performance data.
GCSE results are at the national average, but should be better, as pupils standards of work on entering secondary school were good.
Inspectors also criticised buildings maintenance - particularly in two primaries, which were unable to house new computers for their pupils.
Inspectors emphasised that many of the authority's functions, including financial management and support for numeracy and literacy, were performed effectively.
The council receives the lowest funding level in the country from the Government, but councillors' decisions meant its schools were protected from serious shortfalls.
However, inspectors promised to return to check improvements in "significant" weak areas.
Literacy and numeracy
Special needs strategies
Education development plan
Support for ICT
INSPECTORS will return to Britain's largest seaside resort to check if a "fragile" improvement in standards has been sustained.
OFSTED described Blackpool council's performance since it became a unitary authority in 1998 as "promising".
The authority, where tourism is the main industry and which has pockets of "severe deprivation", had a difficult start, inheriting too many schools causing concern, a low level of funding and over-expensive special needs services.
But it had gained heads' trust, contributed significantly to improving learning, and was providing good support for the literacy and numeracy strategies.
However, these improvements haven't been reflected yet in exam results. GCSE marks improved only in line with national averages in 1998-99, while results for 11-year-olds have not been keeping pace with national gains.
Behaviour and attendance
Failing schools support
Support for governors
Education development plan
INSPECTORS have delivered a mixed verdict on services to schools in Cambridgeshire, England's fastest-growing county.
The Conservative-controlled authority performed many functions competently, benefiting from broad cross-party agreement on education priorities.
Exam results were consistently above the national average, and in line with what could be expected from a county described as relatively prosperous.
The authority was very effective in working with schools which had weaknesses. While the strengths outweighed weaknesses, inspectors will check on its progress again in the next two years.
Literacy and numeracy
Help for schools in trouble
Support for Traveller pupils
Forward plans for delegation
Strategic planning for special needs pupils
SCHOOL improvement is on track in a local authority facing an overhaul of its three-tier system, according to inspectors.
OFSTED said the small outer London borough of Merton had more strengths than weaknesses, although standards at secondary level were too low. Inspectors said that while the restructuring plan was well thought-out, it gave too little attention to the transfer of children at 11.
Clear and effective leadership was found in many areas of the authority. Help for schools with weaknesses was good and governors were well-supported.
One fifth of the borough's population is from ethnic-minority groups and 96 languages are spoken. While support to those pupils was variable, inspectors said improvements were being made.
support for literacy and numeracy
financial support for schools
support for management
use of performance data
provision for pupils not in school
support for information and communication technology
AN education authority that delegates a high proportion of cash to its schools has been praised by inspectors for its clear, continuing commitment to raising standards.
Sefton borough, stretching from Southport to Bootle, is ranked 54th out of the 354 most deprived area nationally. A third of the population suffers from substantial economic and social disadvantage.
Inspectors said it was "no mean achievement" that none of the authority's 124 schools were in special measures or judged to have serious weaknesses. More than 80 per cent of schools were good or very good.
Inspectors found the council delegated 85 per cent of its budget to schools - the national average is 82 per cent - and consistently spent more than it received from Government.
Leadership was described as open, approachable and prepared to tackle difficult issues. However elected members have failed to move forward on some urgent issues, such as a review of sixth-form provision.
Strengths outweighed weaknesses but improvements needed to be made in support for ethnic- minority pupils and management of the pupil referral unit.
support for improving the
quality of teaching, including newly-qualified staff
support for literacy and
access to external grants
personnel advice and support
early years and family learning
reduction in school places
support for children in care