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Sector report

Independent special schools


Click on individual markers for provider details

Source – Welsh Government Address list of schools. Note – There are three specials schools in Wales which are not displayed on this map; Estyn has agreed not to publish the addresses of these schools.



Number of providers 2023

Core inspections

No. of core inspections: 3

Welsh-medium: 0

English-medium: 3

Monitoring visits: 25

Case studies

No. of case studies: 1

During 2022-2023 independent special schools continued to provide education for learners from Wales and England with a wide range of additional learning needs (ALN). Compared to the previous academic year a greater proportion of these schools was compliant with the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003.

Generally, inspectors found that independent special schools provided a nurturing environment and had a strong understanding of their pupils. Staff used this knowledge to engage pupils in their learning and provide a broad and balanced curriculum. However, in around half of the schools visited during the year, assessment processes were underdeveloped and there were limited strategic approaches to ensure the skills development of pupils across the curriculum.

In the majority of schools visited, there had been changes to leadership since the time of the most recent inspection or monitoring visit. In addition to these internal changes, independent special schools were conscious of external changes, for example current work to update the independent school standards (Wales) and proposed changes to primary legislation to eliminate profit from the care of children looked after. In response to ALN reform, independent special schools had begun the process of formally registering with the Welsh Government as schools able to provide additional learning provision.

Independent special schools generally reported that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had continued to lessen during the year. However, challenges remained, for example in rebuilding relationships with work experience placement providers. In addition, these schools reported that, overall, the profile of pupils referred to them was becoming more complex, for example due to increased mental health needs.

Smiling child in a wheelchair with an adult

Teaching and learning

In all three of the schools inspected as well as during a minority of annual monitoring visits, inspectors found that many pupils made sound progress in their learning. Many made progress in important areas, such as in their literacy, numeracy, independence and life skills and, where appropriate, pupils gained a range of relevant accreditation. However, the low attendance of pupils at a very few schools visited and at two of the schools inspected hindered the progress of affected pupils. Additionally, in all three schools inspected this year, there were limited opportunities for pupils to develop their ICT skills progressively over time.

In around half of the monitoring visits, assessment was identified as an area for development. In these schools, there were limited strategic approaches to ensure the skills development of pupils across the curriculum. In addition, leaders and teachers at these schools did not track the incremental steps of progress pupils made consistently enough, and too often assessment information did not inform teachers’ planning or the next steps pupils should take in their learning.

Generally, across the majority of schools we visited, staff knew their pupils very well and made effective use of this to engage them in learning. In a minority of schools, teachers planned lessons carefully to include relevant and engaging learning activities. In these schools, the curriculum offer was enriched by a comprehensive range of learning experiences including offsite activities and interactions with visitors to the school.

Engaging learning experiences at Amberleigh Therapeutic School, Powys

In addition to the core curriculum, the school provides an extensive range of engaging and authentic learning experiences. For example, pupils make preserves and craft wooden products to sell locally, they repair bikes and grow their own food. As a result, pupils develop a range of beneficial skills across the curriculum, including practical and work-related skills.

Two of the three schools inspected and many of the schools that inspectors visited as part of the monitoring process met all of the requirements of the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003. These schools provided a broad and balanced range of learning experiences for their pupils. However, a few of the schools did not meet the requirements. In these schools, learning experiences were not matched well enough to the needs of pupils, especially those with a statement of special educational needs or an individual development plan (IDP).

Young girl playing with a toy

Care, support and well-being

All three schools inspected and a minority of schools visited as part of annual monitoring activity, provided a nurturing environment for pupils. As a result, many pupils settled quickly into their learning and engaged well with their classmates and staff members. Many pupils behaved well in school and enjoyed their learning. In all three schools we inspected, staff knew their pupils very well and developed positive working relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

In all three schools inspected, pupils made suitable progress in their independence and preparation for their future. However, in one of the schools inspected, and in a few schools where we conducted monitoring visits, personal and social education programmes were underdeveloped and did not include important areas such as careers and work-related experiences.

Across this sector, safeguarding was generally a strong aspect of schools’ work. The three schools inspected had developed safeguarding cultures where staff had a good understanding of their role in keeping pupils safe. However, in a few schools visited during monitoring activity, leaders did not monitor the application of policies and procedures closely enough. In three of these schools, important policies that guide schools’ work around safeguarding were too generic and did not have sufficient regard to specific Welsh Government guidance (Welsh Government, 2022).

Helping learners to prepare for adult life, Greenfields School, Newport

Pupils benefit from a range of meaningful activities which support their preparation for the experiences of adult life. This includes taking part in mock interviews, as well as activities to develop important life skills such as money management or cooking lunch for their peers as part of ‘Feed me Friday’.

Young boy playing with a toy

Leading and improving

In the majority of schools visited this academic year, there had been changes to leadership since the previous inspection or monitoring visit. In addition, prolonged instability of leadership in a few schools was having a negative impact on teaching and learning.

The majority of schools visited benefited from support and challenge from their wider organisation as part of quality assurance and improvement planning processes. At all three schools inspected, leaders had developed a clear vision for the school and had suitable quality assurance processes in place. At two of the three schools, leaders had a clear understanding of their school’s strengths and areas for development.

However, at the other schools visited as part of the monitoring process this year, shortcomings in the quality of leadership ultimately limited the progress pupils made. At these schools, self-evaluation processes lacked rigour and improvement planning did not focus sharply enough on the most important areas for improvement. Overall, these processes did not focus consistently on the impact of teaching on learning. As a result, leaders did not have a clear understanding of their school’s strengths and areas for development, and they made slow progress in moving the school forward.

Generally, independent special schools have a professional learning offer, which covers a wide range of topics, including staff training on how to manage incidences of challenging behaviour. However, at two of the three schools inspected this year, the professional learning offer did not focus well enough on teaching and learning. In addition, schools did not use links with other providers consistently enough to help drive improvement.

In a few schools, leaders had made beneficial changes to the learning environment and strengthened the range of resources available. For example, one school had added a workshop and garden classroom. However, inspectors identified the learning environment as an area for development for each of the three schools inspected as well as for a few schools who had monitoring visits. In these schools, the learning environment was not well-maintained or the environment limited learning.

Pupil target setting and tracking at Gwenllian Education Centre, Carmarthenshire

At the Gwenllian Education Centre, inspectors found that individual pupil targets are progressive and meaningful. Staff carefully track the small steps of progress pupils make throughout the day. This valuable information is shared with parents and carers daily.

Staff have high expectations of pupils. They plan a range of relevant and engaging activities to meet the individual needs and interests of pupils well. Pupils respond positively to this approach. They transition smoothly between activities and are highly engaged in their learning. During their time at the school, nearly all pupils make exceptional progress from their individual starting points.


Welsh Government (2022) Keeping learners safe: the role of local authorities, governing bodies and proprietors of independent schools under the Education Act 2002. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 17 November 2023]