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Sector report

Independent specialist colleges


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Number of providers 2023

Core inspections

No. of core inspections: 5

Welsh-medium: 0

English-medium: 5

Case studies

No. of case studies: 2

During 2022-2023, independent specialist colleges continued to provide education and well-being support for learners with a wide range of additional learning needs (ALN). Overall, we found that these providers had a strong understanding of their learners’ needs and supported them to develop important skills, such as social skills and independence, during their time at college. However, the quality of teaching was too variable across this sector and was too often constrained by accreditation requirements or an over-reliance on worksheets.

This was a period of change across the sector. At all five of the colleges inspected during the academic year, there had been notable changes in leadership since their most recent inspection or monitoring visit. More widely, there had been changes in leadership at nearly all independent specialist colleges since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to these internal changes, independent specialist colleges were aware of significant external changes. For example, the responsibility for the allocation of funding for placements at these colleges is moving from the Welsh Government to local authorities in line with ALN reform.

Colleges generally reported that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had continued to lessen during the year. However, related challenges remained, for example, in rebuilding relationships with work experience placement providers. In addition, independent specialist colleges reported that, on the whole, the profiles of learners referred to them were becoming more complex, in part due to the impact of the pandemic on the development of individual learners.

A man with a stick being helped by a woman in a library

Teaching and learning

Overall, many learners at the five independent specialist colleges inspected during 2022-2023 made steady progress in their learning. Inspectors found that many learners made generally strong progress in developing communication, social and independent living skills. Many learners made sound progress in developing creative, physical and independent living skills. Across the colleges inspected, where appropriate, many learners achieved a range of units of accreditation, for example in literacy or independent living skills. However, at three of the five colleges, learner progress was hindered by poor attendance.

Inspectors found that each of the five colleges inspected provided a broad curriculum for their learners. Three of these colleges used their accommodation and grounds well to provide learners with purposeful and practical activities. For example, learners tended to the college goats, served customers in the college café and counted the takings of the college shop. Three of the five colleges supplemented their curriculum offer with a range of engaging and beneficial community-based activities. For example, learners accessed the local authority wellbeing hub to use the sensory room or take up crochet lessons. At three of the five settings, partly due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a limited range of community-based or work-related activities available.

At four of the colleges, staff developed strong and caring relationships with learners based on trust and mutual respect. At three colleges, staff embedded helpful routines within the college day to support learners to transition between activities and develop their independence. These staff members provided learners with encouraging praise and useful verbal feedback to move their learning forward. At three of the colleges, inspectors found that staff provided clear instructions to learners and used questioning effectively to develop learners’ ability to recall prior learning.

However, at four of the five colleges the quality of teaching was too variable. Where teaching was less successful, it was not matched well enough to the needs of learners. At three colleges, inspectors found that the curriculum and teaching were overly constrained by the requirements of accreditation, or by an over-reliance on set worksheets. Overall, provision to improve learners’ skills was underdeveloped at each of the five colleges.

Each of the colleges used an appropriate range of strategies to assess learner progress, these processes were newly revised at two of the colleges. Three colleges did not consistently use such information about learners’ progress to inform their planning.

Enrichment events at Coleg Plas Dwbl, Pembrokeshire

The college plans regular celebrations and events that enrich the core curriculum offer. They hold termly festivals, such as the Martinmas festival where all learners make and light their own lanterns. The college provides learners with an environment that acknowledges and celebrates its specific Welsh context and culture, for example, though preparations for a college performance of ‘Y Mabinogi’.

A young student in a lecture theatre

Care, support and well-being

All five colleges inspected this year had successfully developed nurturing communities with a strong focus on learners. In each of the colleges, staff had a comprehensive understanding of learners’ needs that was underpinned by the college’s adoption of a therapeutic offer. For example, the colleges each benefited from the support of a speech and language therapist to provide guidance on meeting the communication needs of learners.

Each college had used a range of important information about learners’ needs to develop comprehensive care and support plans. Where these were used effectively, staff had a clear understanding of how to meet the wide range of their learners’ needs. However, at two of the five colleges, these plans were not implemented consistently. Four colleges had appropriate transition processes in place to support learners who were due to join the college as well as those preparing to leave.

Generally, many learners enjoyed attending college. They developed positive working relationships with staff members and demonstrated positive attitudes to their learning. Many learners enjoyed participating in a range of extracurricular activities, such as clubs and community-based activities. For example, learners attended an after-college woodwork club and went shopping in preparation for cookery sessions. Many learners made sound progress in important areas such as developing their independence and social skills. However, for three of the five colleges, learner attendance was an area for development.

In each of the five colleges, learners developed an understanding of how to keep themselves safe and healthy, for example through learning about healthy eating and relationships. However, this provision was inconsistent across the colleges. In some cases, it did not cover important topics such as radicalisation, whereas in others schemes of learning were not adapted well enough to meet the needs of all learners.

All five colleges had staff teams that demonstrated a strong understanding of their role in keeping learners safe. Three colleges had developed highly effective processes in this area. However, two of the colleges inspected received a well-being letter from Estyn because of specific concerns relating to health and safety or safeguarding.

Developing learners’ independence at Aspris College North Wales, Wrexham

The college’s provision for developing social skills, independence and independent living skills is a strength. For example, where appropriate, learners are well supported to develop relevant skills in using public transport independently and confidently.

The college provides a purposeful range of opportunities for learners to develop their independence and work skills by undertaking relevant external work-related experience. For example, learners benefit from work placements at dog kennels, nearby factories or at the local museum.

A woman making a gesture with her hands

Leading and improving

Despite the challenging context and instability of leadership across the sector, at three of the five colleges inspected, leaders had set a clear vision for the college that was well understood by staff members. All colleges inspected had a strong focus on safeguarding and were developing a positive safeguarding culture. Three of the colleges also provided caring support for their staff members, for example valuable well-being and financial support arrangements alongside their wider employee assistance programmes. At three colleges, new leaders worked diligently to bring about rapid improvements. However, overall, each of the five colleges inspected made slow or inconsistent progress against the recommendations from their most recent inspections and monitoring visits.

Many of the self-evaluation and college improvement planning processes were newly established at four of the colleges inspected. Senior leaders at two colleges used data effectively to evaluate the work of their colleges. However, at three colleges, senior leaders did not evaluate this at a whole-college level. Too often, work in this area focused on compliance and did not focus well-enough on the impact of teaching on learning.

Each of the five colleges inspected this academic year are part of wider organisations that provide education or care for learners across Wales and England. Each of the college leads benefited from a range of support and services from these wider organisations. For example, they received support with safer recruitment, quality assurance and governance as well as with operational aspects such as ICT. However, at four of the colleges, this support and guidance did not take good enough account of the specific Welsh context of the college or have sufficient regard to Welsh Government guidance.

Each college inspected provided a range of professional learning opportunities for staff, notably in relation to the ALN of learners, such as the needs of learners with autistic spectrum condition or those who have experienced trauma. However, at four settings, these opportunities did not focus effectively enough on teaching and learning, and four settings had underdeveloped arrangements to learn from good practice elsewhere.

Since their last inspection or visit, two colleges had made improvements to their resources and learning environments. Despite these enhancements, three of the five settings inspected required improvements in these aspects.