They were promised a full part in the ongoing drama of education reform directed by the Coalition and its ministers. But special school and pupil referral unit (PRU) headteachers fear that, rather than taking a starring role, they will be relegated to a walk-on part because they are barred from one of the biggest "benefits" so far announced by the Government.
While mainstream schools with outstanding ratings will escape Ofsted visits in future, TES has discovered that similarly high-performing special schools and PRUs will still be inspected. They will be visited by Ofsted every five years as part of the new inspection framework, just as they are now, despite a promise last year that they would be exempt.
Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well. Special school heads have met with Ofsted, and hope to meet with officials or ministers from the Department for Education to argue that they want to receive the same treatment as other school leaders.
They have been told the complex nature of their work and pupil population is the reason they will not be allowed to bask in the freedom enjoyed by their peers in the regular sector.
Ofsted's new inspection framework is due to be introduced in January. At that point, inspectors will only go into outstanding mainstream schools if certain "risk factors" are triggered, including results and parental concern. But civil servants have been unable to come up with any equivalent "red flags" for special schools or PRUs.
Special school members of the Schools Network, formerly the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, have met with Ofsted to discuss the issue. They want to be included in the exemption.
"It does feel like this will be an equality issue; it's like the Government are saying they are not interested in what schools are doing unless it's high-level qualifications. Where's the incentive here for my staff and pupils?" said Schools Network steering group member David Gregory, who runs Fosse Way special school near Bath. "But we understand the reasons - there hasn't been the same focus on producing robust pupil data in special schools, or on setting up reliable systems to show their attainment and progress," he added.
Mr Gregory said special school heads want a checklist of "risk factors" to be developed by Ofsted so that special schools can be held to account in the same way as mainstream schools. This would also help heads to compare their school's performance with others.
"I want to be able to show parents how well children can do. One of my pupils this year got to Oxford University - there is no software available that can cover all the ability ranges in the school," he said.
But according to Christopher Robertson, lecturer in inclusive and special education at Birmingham University, special educational needs leaders do welcome inspection.
"I don't think special school heads mind inspection as much as other school leaders; they fought hard to be put on the same map as everybody else. They face challenges and want to prove how much they are shining," he said.
Working out what would show that a special school was in trouble is not a new issue for inspectors. David Bateson, principal of Ash Field School and Assistive Technology Assessment Centre in Leicester and chairman of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education, has worked with Ofsted in the past to come up with a list of risk factors. This was before the exemption from inspection was proposed for outstanding schools.
"I know this is something which has been thought about very deeply," he said. "In the past, Ofsted had a very open and good dialogue, and I can understand their decision on this at the moment."
Jacky Mackenzie, secretary of the National Organisation for Pupil Referral Units, said she didn't think her members would feel "discriminated" against, because there were "pretty good reasons" for Ofsted's decision.
"PRUs are very different places in terms of stability. They can be placed in different circumstances by local authorities overnight because of the control councils have over pupil numbers and sending pupils there," she said. "This, and their smaller size, means they become vulnerable very quickly."
A DfE spokesman was conciliatory: "The Education Bill will exempt mainstream and secondary schools from routine inspection. We have created flexibility in the bill so that in future this could be extended to other categories of outstanding schools."
WHO FARES HOW
Between 1 September 2010 and 8 April 2011, 10 per cent of all schools were given an outstanding rating - 14 per cent of secondaries and 6 per cent of primaries.
Special schools are far more likely to get the top grade. Almost a third (30 per cent) are ranked outstanding; for pupil referral units (PRUs), the figure is 14 per cent.
During the same period, 3 per cent of special schools were rated inadequate compared to 6 per cent of primaries, 9 per cent of secondaries and 5 per cent of PRUs.