AS A little girl, Dela Smith would carefully line up her toys before her and set to work. It was time for school. Her inanimate pupils would stare blankly back at her as she taught them, but their soulless expressions didn't deter the youngster who harboured dreams of becoming a headteacher.

Today, Dela Smith is headteacher of Beaumont Hill Special School and has just been honoured in a way even she could not have envisaged. She has been created a Dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

Relaxing in her office, surrounded by dozens of cards and flowers, she admits to being a little overawed by the attention.

Dela, 48, received her letter in May informing her she was being considered for the honour of DBE. It is typical of her modest nature that she initially thought the letter was a joke and is still not entirely convinced they have the right woman. "I'm waiting for the Queen to say 'what is your favourite chocolate cake recipe?' then I'll know it's been a typing error and it's for Delia Smith," she laughs.

Soon after the announcement, the calls began to come in. Calls from the press wanting to interview her and take her picture, and dozens of calls from well-wishers in the community, at school and from family and friends.

Fortunately she managed a relaxing weekend in the Lake District celebrating a friend's 60th birthday before the news really got around.

"I just got back to the most wonderful letters and telephone calls and flowers, beyond my wildest dreams," she recalls. "I really did appreciate it all and felt really humbled by the response. But we're like a big family here. I think all the staff love all the children and that's one of the pleasures of special education, you form such close relationships with them."

Dela was born in Chester, Cheshire, but moved around a great deal with her father Jack's job as chief purchasing officer with the Forestry Commission. Her mum, Nora, brought up Dela and younger sister Joy, who also teaches children with special educational needs near Edinburgh.

Cambridge, Bristol, York and Edinburgh came and went and, ironically, it was the constant change which was to give her an insight across the education spectrum.

"I went to comprehensive, grammar, secondary modern, primary and aided primary schools. I think I've had a very eclectic experience of education which has been very enriching," she says. "I wanted to be a headteacher from an early age. I used to play teachers with my friends and we all used to have a book or I would line up my toys and have a school.

"I always wanted to work in special needs as well. It's the most stimulating work. There's always excitement and innovation and we really have the privilege of working with some of the best young people and they bring out the best in all of us. I think to have the opportunity to change what happens and make the conditions even better for children and teachers in the classroom is something which has always interested me."

Dela spent four years at the former Middleton-St-George College training to be a teacher before landing her first job in special education at Dinsdale Park Residential School, Middleton-St-George where now-retired headteacher Howell Morgan was to have a great influence.

"He was a leading light at the time. He brought ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in before it was ever thought of," she says. "He was quite significant, I think, in encouraging me to develop in special needs."

She then moved to Mayfield Special School as deputy head in 1985 and became headteacher in 1986. She joined Beaumont Hill in 1992, a school with 225 pupils aged from two to 19 with a range of learning difficulties.

It is the third time the school has been in the limelight. A year ago Denise Murray was awarded Classroom Assistant of the Year in the Teaching Awards 2000. The school was also awarded technology college status in 1999 with Abbey Hill School, Stockton, because of its achievements as a centre of excellence. They were the first two special schools in the country to be awarded technology college status. "It's enabled us to raise the quality of teaching and learning by having better resources, more staff training, and also developed our links with the mainstream schools," says Dela, who is married to Colin, a teacher at Beaumont Hill Senior School.

She has also enjoyed her role as member of a National Advisory Group for four years, set up to implement a Government action programme for special educational needs development.

'That has been a huge privilege and given me the opportunity to really understand and learn about special educational needs in its widest sense," she says. "It's a job which keeps you on your toes, but one which brings you in very close contact with the community."

Her close ties with the community are evident as a member of Darlington College Corporation Board and a trustee of the Clow Beck Children's Farm project, a £1m campaign to build a farm at Croft, near Darlington. But her next challenge will be the £10.2m scheme to close the school and move to two new sites if a bid for private finance initiative cash is successful.

"We're really looking forward to it," she says. "The buildings here are so outdated and the children deserve the best facilities with state-of-the-art equipment."

Her face is glowing with enthusiasm about the chance to make a difference once more.

"You know I really never dreamed that I would be singled out," she says of her new title. "I think it's so wonderful that they're picking ordinary people like me who are here doing their job because they are committed to it. But it's not just for me, it's for everyone here."