Schools are criticised for paying too little attention to art and design, music, drama, religious and moral education, ICT, science and home economics. "The structure of the curriculum is a significant weakness in the majority of schools," Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, states.
Pupils, particularly in the secondary stages, can pick up key life skills that improve their employment prospects by shaking off the rigid targets set out in individualised education programmes (IEPs), HMI states in its first national inspection report on 65 of the country's 230 special schools.
Frank O'Hagan, lead inspector for special education, said: "One special school we were in recently had an agreement with six city hotels where the children could go for work experience and learn from professionals how best to serve at table. They picked up all sorts of social skills in terms of meeting people, making people feel at home, making sure they enjoyed their meal, and so on."
He added: "We are trying to get the curriculum to be more focused on need and allowing schools to do it in a more flexible manner. Schools are still gaining qualifications in English and maths and other subject areas but this was a real boost to the children."
Inspectors stress that a more interesting and varied curriculum will help tackle disaffection and indiscipline. Figures out next week are again likely to highlight the fact that two out of three serious incidents of violence against teachers take place in special schools.
Mr O'Hagan said: "If children feel that they are attaining and contributing to the educational system, that in turn does lead to less disruption in class. Teachers tell us that."
Inspectors, however, commend schools for their work on IEPs and say the best examples give pupils clear targets which are shared with parents.
"This has been a major factor in improving the quality of achievement in special schools," Mr O'Hagan said.
Many special schools are praised for adapting new courses at Access and Intermediate level in the Scottish Qualifications Authority framework, giving pupils a sense of real achievement.
On a more critical note, the inspectors are demanding better leadership in the declining special school sector. Twenty per cent of headteachers are said to show significant weaknesses - 5 per cent more than in mainstream schools.
Nearly 36,000 pupils with special educational needs are now educated in mainstream schools, against 8,500 in special schools. The report draws no comparison between the sectors, and offers no comment on mainstreaming or inclusion.
Leader, page 28 "Standards and Quality in Special Schools: 1998-2002".
AN UPLIFTING EXPERIENCE
Inspectors said ethos was good or very good in 90 per cent of special schools. A hydrotherapy session at Stanmore School in Lanark underlines the caring environment highlighted by HMI. But elsewhere inspectors dish out a mixed verdict.