All three councils - Waltham Forest in north-east London, Rochdale and Bradford had major administrative problems and a poor record on special needs.
Also, Waltham Forest needed to do more to raise standards in secondary schools, Rochdale was doing too little to improve pupils' behaviour and cut exclusions and Bradford was weak on measures to combat racism.
However in Bradford, the inspectors found good work on early years, admissions and numeracy. In Waltham Forest and Rochdale, the authorities were giving good support to schools with the most serious weaknesses.
Westminster and Luton councils were also found to have a string of weaknesses. But the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was given virtually a clean bill of health.
The Local Government Association, meanwhile, was busy with its inquiry into re-organising the school year.Chaired by former Labour MP and university vice-chancellor Chris Price, the group is looking at dividing the school year into four, five or six terms instead of three, shortening the summer holiday and creating more even term lengths.
Changing to a five-term year could bring an end to the post-A level scramble for university places, according to leading members of the review team. The exams could be brought forward to April (in the fourth term), thus enabling sixth-formers to apply after they had got their results.
But travel agents have warned the inquiry that shortening the sumer break to four weeks could increase congestion on the roads and raise the price of flights. To get round this, shorter summer holidays could be staggered from area to area, as they are in France and Germany.
However, shorter holidays could be the last straw for many teachers, already more stressed, depressed and bullied than many other professionals, according to a new report.
The first report from Teacherline, the telephone counselling service for teachers, says teachers are four times more likely to experience stress at work than professionals in the private sector. They also experience seven times more conflict with managers and colleagues.
The helpline has received more than 8,000 calls since it started up last September. It estimates the Government would save at least pound;25 million a year on sickness pay and stand-in cover if it gave teachers free access to face-to-face counselling.
One group of people reducing the burden on primary teachers is classroom assistants. In a survey for the National Foundation for Educational Research, two-thirds of primary heads said their use of classroom and welfare assistants was on the rise. Three out of four heads said that hiring more assistants would be their first priority if they had more money - above recruiting more teachers.
The current pre-eminence of Cambridge was reinforced by the news that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is to finance 230 scholarships for the world's brightest students to come to the university. The scheme will form a powerful rival to Oxford's Rhodes Scholarships, which brought US president Bill Clinton to Cambridge's rival in the 1960s.