The report says equal opportunities have been undermined by the wide variation in special education. Within a single local authority pupils with the same learning difficulties may be placed in special schools, units attached to mainstream schools or ordinary classes, inspectors found.
Despite these problems,
standards are rising because of better teaching and more attention to the national curriculum, says a four-year review of
English special schools.
Teaching is now satisfactory or better in almost nine out of 10 schools, says Special Education 1994-98: A review of special schools, secure units and pupil referral units in England. But teachers' lack of subject knowledge was found to damage the overall quality of lessons in almost half of all special schools.
Staff need to have an especially secure grasp of their subjects because they must devise imaginative ways of reaching their pupils without losing sight of what is being taught, inspectors said.
The problem was particularly acute in schools for pupils with emotional and behaviour problems where there were higher proportions of secondary pupils working at or near the expected standard for their age.
Meanwhile, teachers' "considerable achievement" in adapting national study programmes to the wide spread of abilities and special needs of children drew praise.
The OFSTED review was based on the findings of the inspections of all 1,300 English special schools during a four-year cycle.
Special Education 1994-98 is available from The Publications Centre, PO Box 276 London SW8 5DT 0870 600 5533