EDUCATION and care inspectors have produced sharply contrasting verdicts in their first two reviews of independent residential special schools, slating Woodlands School in Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway and commending Ballikinrain in Balfron, near Stirling.
Under the tough new care and welfare inspection regime, with twice-yearly visits, one unannounced, HMI and the Care Commission tear into Woodlands, a residential school for around 14 pupils aged 11-15 with significant social, emotional and behavioural problems.
In the more limited quality indicator table, they have dished out two unsatisfactories and four fairs only a year after HMI judged the school to have acted on previous recommendations from an inspection three years ago.
Since then the school has been hit in the national press by graphic tales of abuse during the early 1990s. A former member of staff was jailed in January for two years after admitting assault charges.
This time inspectors have issued a more damning report listing six recommendations for improvement and seven orders under regulation. The final two stress that the school, run by Roland Aldworth, the company director, should improve its staff training, including the effective use of risk assessment, control and restraint.
"Investigations of complaints regarding members of staff should be carried out without undue delay," inspectors state.
Three years ago, HMI described accommodation as good. When inspectors visited late last year, they said accommodation and facilities had "some important weaknesses". Toilets are said to be poor. One wing of the residential unit had no heating due to a faulty boiler and was using portable heaters.
In March 2000, under the former HMI inspection process, the school was given 14 goods and seven fairs but has since suffered under the more rigorous and joint care and education inspections.
Then, as now, a key strength is said to be the commitment of staff to the welfare of pupils.
But, more critically, inspectors say the school should improve its accommodation, restructure the curriculum "as a matter of urgency", work on attendance, behaviour and achievement, assessment and recording, and self-evaluation, and deal with "factors relating to low staff morale".
Under the statutory requirements, the inspectors demand that the school review its security, levels of staffing in residential units, approaches to risk assessment and ways of measuring progress.
In response to the report, the school stated: "It is clear that we were, and remain, in a period of transition. Naturally, we were disappointed not to achieve higher standards. However, we have responded to the report by taking urgent steps to raise our standards as quickly as possible.
"We have appointed more qualified staff, revised the curriculum and engaged a team of specialist consultants to advise us. At the time of the inspection, the inspectors accepted that an appropriate development plan was being implemented."
Ballikinrain School, run by the Church of Scotland, receives five goods and one fair in the inspectors' assessment. It, too, is a school for pupils with significant problems and had 44 pupils on the roll (10 day pupils) when the team visited in November.
It was inspected two years ago and ordered to improve but was subsequently given a clean bill of health. Key strengths include the accommodation, "dedication of the staff", a highly innovative personal and social development programme, and "notable success" in allowing pupils to attend mainstream schools part-time. Senior managers are commended for their improvement agenda.
Despite that, the inspectors issue six requirements that must be met by late summer, including single rooms for all "as soon as possible".