EDUCATION bosses were today heralded as simply the best after a glowing report praised their remarkable and unique record in turning round struggling schools.

Blackburn with Darwen Council was given the outstanding vote of confidence for its high quality and leadership of its 82 schools by inspectors from the watchdog body Ofsted.

The report, the first since the authority took over education three years ago, said: "This is a remarkable, unique record that is not paralleled anywhere else in the country.

"A growing reputation for excellence means that it is being used to advise other, less successful education authorities."

Three years ago, 15 schools in the borough needed "special measures" or had serious weaknesses.

All have improved and been taken out of special measures and several have since been judged as good schools.

Currently only one primary school, St Edward's, Darwen, is in special measures and two other schools have serious weaknesses.

The education authority has secured prestigious Beacon Status and become one of the first education action zones, a partnership scheme aimed at boosting standards.

Examination results have improved, the literacy and numeracy strategy has been widely praised and the education authority was the fourth most improved council in England and Wales following the 2000 Key Stage Two results for children in top junior classes.

Coun Bill Taylor, executive member for education and lifelong learning, said: "The comments made in the report are a just reward for our achievements and are a tribute to the hard work and dedication of all our staff, teachers, headteachers, education officers and the pupils as well as the excellent support from parents and the valuable contribution from the school governing bodies.

He added: "We must never be complacent and we all accept that there is still a great deal of work to do to."

Home Secretary and Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: "It's great. It rewards some very hard work.

"It's well deserved, in particular for Coun Bill Taylor, and education director Mark Pattison, and all the staff and pupils who have worked very hard. It's very good and I'm delighted."

Heather Jamison, head of Pleckgate High School, said transferring control of education to Blackburn with Darwen caused her to have second thoughts about taking the headship.

"I wondered at the time whether the authority would be too small to be effective," she said. "I took the risk and I am really glad I did."

The report said the education authority inherited " a formidable legacy of under-performance" when it took control of local schools in April 1998, with very high numbers of schools causing concern, very high levels of pupils being excluded and costly provision for children with special educational needs.

Its improvements were achieved under the banner"aiming high, including all. They included intensive support for schools needing literacy help and the introduction of family literacy and numeracy courses.

There has been better maths training for teachers, massive improvements in information and communication technology (ICT), with all schools now having Internet access, unparalleled support for schools causing concern and rigorous measures for identifying them and an increase in Asian and working class governors.

Primary school heads are included in learning groups to allow mutual support and all new heads are mentored by experienced headteachers.

The education authority has also helped 44 schools gain extra cash for out of hours learning since 1988.

The borough's special education provision was also singled out and inspectors praised the "ambitious and comprehensive systematic review" that had taken place.

The inspectors recommended a number of improvements which the education authority is taking on board, including supporting the teaching of ICT in secondary schools, education officers attending governors meetings, improving the payroll system, introducing an action plan for special educational needs, new strategies to improve attendance and improve liaison between schools and social services.