A joint Ofsted and Audit Commission report into the first cycle of inspections of 150 education departments since
1996 also found no causal link between
the performance of departments and schools.
However, education departments with specific problems were still being identified in 2001. In many cases 'foundering' elected members and senior officers 'lacking strategic ability' were responsible for failing departments.
Good education departments had a beneficial effect on some aspects of performance, but the effect was not substantial.
The report said: 'There is no proven relationship between the quality of an education department and overall standards of educational attainment in its schools.'
Other factors, such as the effect of socio-economic disadvantage, are stronger. Standards were higher in advantaged authorities, even where an education department gave poor support to its schools.
This finding is significant as the Department for Education & Skills is increasingly expanding education departments' remit for tackling school improvement.
Ofsted chief inspector David Bell said: 'The report reveals that education departments are increasingly giving schools the support they need. While they do not appear to have a major effect on pupils overall, the best education departments can make a difference, particularly where there is a clear focus for improvement, such as supporting under-performing schools.'
Mr Bell praised education departments for their good work in delivering many of the government's school improvement initiatives, such as the national literacy and numeracy strategies and supporting Excellence in Cities.
He said that education departments represent a valuable source of challenge, support and intervention for under-performing schools, but added there was 'much scope for improvement'.
Education departments need to do more work around developing strategies for the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs, supporting vulnerable children and promoting race relations.
Two major impediments to progress the report highlighted as beyond the powers of councils to address were the national system for supporting pupils with special educational needs, which puts education departments at the mercy of financial demands which are difficult to control, and the national system for education department and school funding.