A LOCAL authority this week was praised by government inspectors for building an "exceptional" relationship with its schools.
Labour-controlled Wigan, greater Manchester, had developed a partnership with headteachers based on mutual trust and respect and this was paying off in rising standards, said the Office for Standards in Education.
Inspectors said Wigan, which has high levels of unemployment and pockets of severe deprivation, had a strong commitment to education and was funding the service well above its allocation from the Government.
Senior councillors and officers were well regarded by schools, and were very well led by director of education Bob Clark. A genuine culture of partnership had developed, with the authority willing to listen to headteachers while providing good support for school management.
Inspectors uncovered evidence from individual school visits of rising standards, particularly in the primary sector.Wigan had a good record on schools causing concern, only six of its 145 schools ever having been in special measures.
However, inspectors criticised the council's special educational needs provision as being uneconomic. Almost one in 20 of its pupils has a statement, and it has too many special schools (10). In addition, Wigan's provision for pupils educated other than at school was "poor", with one-third of such pupils receiving less than 10 hours' tuition a week. The legal status of the centre housing excluded pupils was "unclear".
There was a mixture of praise and criticism for Cumbria council this week. Overall, England's second largest authority was providing sound support for its schools, its strengths clearly outweighing its weaknesses.
Inspectors, who visited Cumbria before the recent local government elections, when it was Labour-controlled, said it was now emerging from a period of uncertainty associated with the period before 1997, when no party was in overall control. However, Cumbria swung back to no overall control in this month's elections.
John Nellist, director of education, provided strong, resilient leadership, and the council had good policies on social inclusion, and had implemented a number of national initiatives well.
However, inspectors sai the council was operating too many small schools - a "significant minority" had more than 25 per cent surplus places, and not all were in rural areas where closure would prove troublesome. Many headteachers of small schools were overworked, with several off sick through stress.
Inspectors also said Cumbria had "no coherent strategy" for early years' provision, while provision for the small number of ethnic-minority pupils was unsatisfactory.
Finally, inspectors this week praised one of England's smallest local authorities for succeeding against the odds. When Darlington LEA started life as a new unitary authority in 1997, it had below-average levels of achievement, many school buildings in poor condition and high exclusion rates. It was also underfunded and has continued to operate on limited resources. Despite these problems, inspectors found that the council has succeeded in raising expectations and promoting achievement.
Darlington also won praise for reducing the number of pupils leaving school without qualifications and for raising achievement in GCSEs and national curriculum tests to the national average. Inspectors reported confidence in the LEA's ability to respond to weaknesses identified in the report such as support for vulnerable pupils, admissions procedures and target setting.
Verdict on cumbria
* Support for improving attendance
* Support for schools causing concern
* Financial managementpersonnel support
* Special educational needs
* Behaviour support
* Surplus places
* Implementation of corporate plans
Verdict on darlington
* Support for numeracy in primary schools
* Provision of performance data to schools
* Asset management planning
* Provision of school places
* Provision and support for pupils without a school place, children in public care and child protection
Verdict on wigan
* Education Development Plan
* School improvement support
* Literacy and numeracy work
* Support for governors
* Support for early years
* Corporate planning
* Planning for special educational needs
* Provision for excluded pupils