INSPECTION IS an infrequent but intense part of running a school that teachers and managers accept as necessary but don't often welcome warmly.
However, it is different in a special school, says Carol Jackson, headteacher of Kersland School in Renfrewshire, which has received the highest award for excellence from the European Foundation for Quality Manage-ment - the first Scottish school to do so.
The experience was similar to an inspection, says Mrs Jackson. "As with an inspection, we enjoyed it. That's because you can feel quite isolated in a special school. Most people have no idea what we do with the kids, so an inspection is a really good motivator for staff. They get a buzz out of it.
"A mainstream school has more obvious markers of achievement. Our teachers aren't often asked about their job by people who really understand it. Self-evaluation is all very well but, if you're not careful, it can become self-delusion."
The EFQM inspection lasted a day rather than the whole week of an HM Inspection. It focused on management and processes rather than learning and teaching. But the demands were as exacting, the scrutiny as close, and the questions just as searching. This gave school staff the opportunity to demonstrate to others, and to appreciate for themselves, the extent of their proficiency.
"It is very nice to get a pat on the back from outside the school," says Mrs Jackson. "But to my mind the process was even more valuable than the award."
European Foundation for Quality Man-agement excellence awards are open to high-performing organisations in any sector. They are presented annually.
Quality Scot-land, which promotes business excellence in the private, public and voluntary sectors, administers the awards in this country.
Winners of the awards are exceptional organisations, says EFQM: "They are European or global role models in their approaches and the results they achieve."
Kersland School received detailed feedback on its performance, strengths and areas for improvement. Assessment criteria included: leadership - which was inspirational "with constancy of purpose throughout the management team"; people - communications are excellent and the staff feel valued; and partnerships - "the idea of developing and maintaining value-added partnerships is second nature to the team at Kersland, and there is an open delight at working in partnership with a team of stakeholders in the drive for individual pupil development".
Useful suggestions for improving organisational quality included bringing more potential employers into school to watch pupils in action, so they can better understand and appreciate "what their abilities really are". It is difficult to imagine "an organisation with a greater focus on its customers than Kersland has on its pupils," the report concludes.
This focus is evident around the school, from infant classes right up to young people who are about to leave Kersland's safe havens and look for productive places in a world that can be hard for them. Kersland currently has 68 pupils who have severe and complex learning difficulties. Talking is a struggle for some, mobility often needs to be supported, and autistic spectrum disorders can create challenges for individuals and the groups they belong to.
"Our older children go on work placement," says Mrs Jackson. "They do work-based vocational learning in companies such as Ikea. They are supported at first, but a few are able to work unsupported. It depends on the individual child. When I see them in these places, I feel very proud of them."
Along the corridor in the games room, the pool table has been draped with a white cloth and spread with mouth-watering school-made cakes, banana bread, apple tart, shortcake biscuits and chocolate truffles. The daffodil tea for parents is in full swing.
"We're collecting for the children's ward at the hospital," says Steff, 18, who has amassed a bulging plateful of coins and notes on a table by the door. "I've been at Kersland since I was five. A lot has changed. I like the new exercises and the swimming."
Fellow doorman Ross is looking forward to his 18th birthday party this evening, to which much of the school is invited. "It'll be great," he says.
"I'm going there in a limo. You can have vodka and coke," he tells Mrs Jackson.
"Oh no," she replies. "I'll just have coke. I'm driving."
There are plenty of other examples of focus on the pupils going beyond the school gate, says parent Ann Collier. Her daughter is now doing well in the upper primary but for a time, as an infant, she was reluctant to come to school. "I couldn't get her dressed in the morning, and didn't know who to turn to. So I phoned Mrs Jackson.
"She came out to my house. When Mia saw her, her chin nearly hit her boots, and she got dressed and went to school. Not many teachers would do that for their kids."
While pastoral and physical care are an important component of staff duties, a clear focus on the core business of learning can be seen and felt around the school: from the big, bold wall displays, enchanted forest and sensory garden, to the giant caterpillar number-line and the big tent a teacher has brought in to bring lessons to life.
A bigger surprise is the interactive whiteboards in every classroom. The wee ones learn to use these right away, says infant teacher Jennifer Craig.
"They love the big board. Some of them are too small to reach up and touch it. But they all want to, so we give them a big pointer which they like.
We're getting them used to the technology right away, as soon as they come to school."
Educational programmes on the big screen do hold kids' attention, says Miss Craig, but the whiteboard is normally used in ways that take full advantage of its interactivity. "Some kids learn to write their letters by following them on the board first, then trying them in their books.
"They learn to take turns, to colour in, to match shapes and colours.
There's a lot of software available for this age group, so we use what is suitable, depending on ability."
The perception and understanding of those abilities has changed greatly in recent times, says Mrs Jackson, who has been in special schools for 30 years, the last seven as head of Kersland. Attitudes to educating children with disabilities have evolved in distinctly more enlightened directions.
"Not long ago, they were doing things to children that would be considered abuse today. If you're working with kids with autism, for instance, you want to lower the external stimulus. Even now you can go into classrooms where the walls are completely bare. Why would you want to do that? These children have to live in a world that is busy and stimulating. If you can only manage their behaviour in a clinical setting, they can't access the community. Low stimulus does not mean no stimulus."
She contrasts two approaches to educating children with additional needs.
"I get concerned when I see schools using the same approach for all children all the time. That can't be right."
It is the difference between education and training, she explains - between a naturalistic and a behaviourist approach: "There have always been those two camps. We are a naturalistic school. Sometimes behaviourist methods are appropriate and we will use them. But not all the time for all kids.
"You need to be eclectic in your methods and respond to children as individuals. That means you need staff with the confidence to take curricular risks, and to go with whatever catches the interest of a child."
It's a philosophy of seizing the teachable moment that is evident in action all around Kersland School. In the upper primary the pupils have been looking at aspects of the United States, and are getting some valuable lesson outcomes, in the shape of burgers and iced drinks.
"What did we put in the burgers?" Fiona Marshall asks her class.
"Mince, paprika and onions - they nip your eyes."
"They sure do. What made it all mushy?"
In early secondary, a French travel theme has been brought to life by a full-size tent in the classroom, and the kids recently visited a teacher's caravan. "What did we see there?" Maureen Martin asks the class.
"Juice, crisps and biscuits."
"A cupboard with plates."
"A mirror so Mrs Randall could put her make-up on."
The laughter is not shared by a girl who has been sitting apart, quiet and withdrawn. But when the teacher mentions French songs, Shannen suddenly finds a voice in Frere Jacques. The cheers are rapturous.
The European Foundation for Quality Management has highlighted the vision it finds at Kersland School, and the "passion for continuous improvement".
Equally important, says Carol Jackson, are the values that underpin the work of everybody at the school. "The most important of these, I believe, are joy and compassion."