Special schools will be subjected to no-notice Ofsted inspections "in all but name" from September, it has been revealed, prompting accusations that the watchdog is discriminating against the sector.
Since Ofsted abandoned plans for no-notice inspections last year, mainstream schools have been warned the day before a visit unless there are concerns about issues such as safeguarding.
But now the watchdog has said that, from September, special schools will receive a phone call at 9am on the morning that inspectors are due, with a team arriving from 12pm on the same day. Ofsted says this is because gathering the necessary data takes longer in special schools than in mainstream schools.
But Lynn Slinger, headteacher of Forest Way School, an outstanding special school in Leicestershire, said the sector was being "disadvantaged".
"Surely this is a no-notice inspection by another name?" she said. "If this is because inspectors feel that they need more information about special schools, why can't we be treated like our mainstream colleagues with a phone call the day before?"
The move comes despite the announcement last month from chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw of a new common inspection framework creating a more uniform approach across the different sectors.
But according to special school leaders, the changes will effectively usher in no-notice inspections. Ms Slinger said that special schools were already being treated unfairly because they face repeat inspections even if they have been rated as outstanding, whereas mainstream schools are excused.
She added that special school leaders would be less likely to visit other schools to offer support as they would not want to be away when inspectors called.
`We will be treated differently'
Tina Harvey, headteacher of Perseid School in South London, which teaches children who have severe and profound learning difficulties, said: "We will be treated differently to our mainstream colleagues once again, and it's not for lack of having made our point to Ofsted over time."
The National Association for Special Educational Needs said the changes meant that the watchdog was sending "mixed messages" to its members.
Ofsted said the data it required from special schools was only available on request, meaning that inspectors needed to visit the schools earlier than mainstream schools.
"Because of this situation, inspectors will contact the school on the day before the inspection to make arrangements to visit, view this information and prepare for the inspection on the following day," a spokesperson said.
"This means schools receive a call from the lead inspector at 9am who will go in that afternoon for the preparation. The inspection will take place on the day after the preparation visit.
"Inspectors would not consider it essential to be able to see the headteacher during this preparation visit."