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Sector report: Independent special schools 2021-2022


No. of schools January 2022


No. of schools January 2021

Independent special schools educate pupils from 3 to 18 who have a wide range of additional learning needs (ALN), including autistic spectrum condition (ASC) and social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs.

Many of the schools are small and pupils usually live in children’s homes attached to the schools. A minority of these schools also educate day pupils or pupils who reside in children’s homes not attached to the school. A minority of all independent special schools educate day pupils only. Independent schools, including independent special schools, are the second largest group of providers for pupils educated other than at school (EOTAS) after PRUs.

Nearly all placements at independent special schools are funded by local authorities in Wales or England.

Core inspections and monitoring visits

In addition to full inspections, Estyn carries out regular monitoring inspections of independent special schools, normally every 12 to 18 months. This year, we inspected five independent special schools and carried out monitoring visits to 18 schools. The findings from all inspections and visits have informed this report.

In two of the five schools inspected, inspectors did not report on learning or wellbeing and attitudes to learning. This is because the number of pupils was too few to report on without identifying individual pupils.

Independent school visits

In addition to our core inspections and monitoring visits we also carry out a range of other work with independent schools:

  • Six initial registration visits, to register a new independent school
  • Six follow-up to registration visits, to ensure that a newly opened independent school continues to comply with the independent school standards
  • 31 material change visits, to provide the Welsh Government with advice regarding a change in circumstances of an independent school

Independent School Standards

In inspections of independent special schools, we judge the extent to which the school complies with the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003.

Four of the five schools inspected and 7 out of the 18 schools visited as part of the monitoring process failed to meet at least one of the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003. Where schools had shortcomings in compliance with regulations, these related mostly to the quality of education and teaching provided, although a few schools also had shortcomings in the welfare, health and safety of pupils and the suitability of the premises and accommodation.

This year, the Welsh Government formally requested us to undertake one unannounced focused inspection under section 160 of the Education Act 2002 (Great Britain, 2002). The inspection had a particular focus on standard 3 and standard 1 of the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003, which relate to the welfare, health and safety of pupils and the quality of education provided (National Assembly for Wales, 2003). At the time of the focused inspection, the school did not meet the regulatory requirements for this standard fully.

We are regularly monitoring all of these schools to ensure that they make the necessary improvements to maintain registration.


In one of the schools inspected this year, and in around six-in-ten of the schools visited as part of the monitoring process, many pupils made at least suitable progress in their learning and in important aspects of their development that support this.

In these schools, many pupils made secure progress in developing their literacy and numeracy skills in relation to their starting points. In lessons, they developed their social and communication skills effectively. They worked together in pairs or small groups and listened and responded appropriately to contributions made by other pupils in class discussions.

Many pupils developed valuable independent living skills, which prepared them well for their post-school placements. For example, they improved their independence skills in the local community, such as by using a laundrette and public transport.

However, in two of schools inspected and in around four-in-ten of the schools visited as part of the monitoring process, shortcomings in the quality and consistency of teaching and assessment and in the quality of therapeutic support meant that pupils did not make consistent progress in their learning.

Cameo: Red Rose School

At Red Rose School, nearly all pupils develop their independent living skills effectively. For example, younger pupils develop these skills by preparing simple snacks at break times. As pupils progress through the school, they practise and develop these skills in houses owned by the school. They learn how to use a range of kitchen appliances safely, and develop a range of household skills including bed making, budgeting, shopping, and meal preparation. In addition, pupils practise their independence skills in the local community by using a launderette and developing their travel skills using public transport. Nearly all pupils benefit from these opportunities to develop important life skills in preparation for their post-school placements. Most pupils gain qualifications linked to these activities, which recognise their achievements successfully.

Well-being and attitudes to learning

In two of the schools inspected, and in around seven-in-ten of the schools visited as part of the monitoring process, many pupils improved their well-being and attitudes to learning as a result of the effective well-being support they received. As a result, they felt safe, enjoyed coming to school and maintained their placements successfully.

In these schools, many pupils engaged well in lessons. They showed curiosity, made decisions about their learning, and developed purposeful working relationships with their peers. Over time, and in relation to their needs and abilities, they built their resilience and acquired attitudes and behaviours that help them to become more successful learners.

Most pupils felt that adults listened to their views and that they had regular opportunities to make choices and decisions for themselves. Where teachers planned effectively to develop pupils’ personal, social and health education, many developed a sense of their place in the wider community and acquired a greater understanding of how to keep themselves healthy and safe.

However, in one of the schools inspected and in three-in-ten schools visited as part of the monitoring process, limitations relating to the physical environment, inconsistency in the use of behaviour management strategies used by staff, and shortcomings in the quality of therapeutic support meant that some pupils, particularly those with more complex needs, did not make suitable progress. In addition, the poor attendance of a minority of pupils limited the progress these pupils made in their learning and well-being.

Teaching and learning experiences

One of the schools inspected this year and around six-in-ten schools visited as part of the monitoring process provided a broad and balanced range of learning experiences that met the requirements of the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003.

In these schools, the provision for personal, social and health education covered important area such as healthy relationships, personal safety and well-being. However, overall, in all schools, a few aspects of this provision were underdeveloped, for example learning about sexual harassment, radicalisation and exploitation.

In only one of the schools inspected this year, and in around six-in-ten schools visited as part of the monitoring process, was the quality of teaching, planning and assessment strong. In these schools, teaching and learning support staff planned engaging activities based on their knowledge of individual pupils’ needs and interests. In particular, they had a robust understanding of the ALN of their pupils, and of the therapeutic approaches needed to support them.

In four of the schools inspected this year, and in four-in-ten of the schools visited as part of the monitoring process, teaching and learning experiences required improvement. This is because teachers’ planning did not link well enough to pupils’ needs and did not demonstrate how pupils can develop their skills and understanding progressively in ways that link clearly to their long-term destinations. In addition, shortcomings in the physical environment and the quality of teaching and learning support because of frequent changes to the staff team limited the progress pupils made across the curriculum.

Cameo: Bettws Lifehouse

Bettws Lifehouse provides a flexible, broad and balanced curriculum that is well suited to the needs, interests and aspirations of pupils. In the lower school, the stimulating curriculum allows pupils valuable opportunities to learn through play, exploration and authentic activities. This helps pupils to engage productively in lessons and to develop important skills for learning such as social and thinking skills. Pupils in the upper school are offered a broad range of relevant qualifications and experiences, which allows pupils to follow a pathway that meets their needs and interests successfully. As a result, pupils access qualification routes that are relevant and effectively support their postschool pathways.

Care, support and guidance

In four of the schools inspected this year and in seven-in-ten schools visited as part of the monitoring process, care, support and guidance were a strong aspect of the school’s work. In these schools, pre-entry and initial assessment processes were robust and ensured that teachers had an accurate understanding of pupils’ individual ALN and starting points. These schools provided a strongly nurturing and inclusive environment that helped many pupils to develop resilience and feel safe.

In these schools, the work to promote pupils’ personal and social development was a strength. This provision included suitable opportunities for pupils to develop their cultural understanding and awareness of the world around them, and staff planned effectively to prepare pupils for their next steps in life. Leaders ensured that there were strong systems to communicate with parents and carers, and guide the work of the therapeutic or clinical team. As a result, these strategies supported the work of teaching staff well.

Across this sector, safeguarding was a strong aspect of schools’ work. However, in two schools inspected, leaders did not monitor the application of policies and procedures closely enough. In these schools, and in two-in-ten schools visited as part of the monitoring process, the application of behaviour management strategies and communication was inconsistent. In addition, therapeutic approaches were not co-ordinated well enough to meet the needs of pupils and staff.


Throughout the period of the pandemic, including at times of general lockdown, leaders of independent special schools have shown considerable commitment and resilience in ensuring that their schools remained open to support the well-being and safety of their pupils. Where schools are attached to residential homes, this usually meant that they maintained face-to-face teaching for nearly all of this period. Frequently, these schools operated without the support of local authorities or other networks of support.

In one school inspected this year, and in around five-in-ten schools visited as part of the monitoring process, leadership and management were a strength of the school. In these schools, leaders communicated a clear strategic direction for the school, as well as ensuring effective day-to-day management of the school. Programmes of professional learning linked closely to the school’s strategic priorities and self-evaluation and improvement planning processes were robust and inclusive. As a result, these schools made strong progress against recommendations from previous monitoring visits and inspections.

However, in the other schools visited this year, shortcomings in the quality of leadership limited the progress pupils made. These shortcomings meant that quality assurance activities focused too much on demonstrating compliance rather than providing an in-depth evaluation of what works well and what needs to improve. Improvement planning was not detailed enough and did not identify the resources and timescales required to achieve the school’s priorities. In these schools, professional learning did not focus sufficiently on developing teachers’ understanding of the core skills of teaching and supporting pupils with a broad range of complex needs. As a result, these schools made only slow progress against recommendations from previous visits.

Cameo: Headlands School

At Headlands School, the senior leadership team provides highly effective strategic leadership for the school. Leaders at all levels understand their roles and responsibilities well. Leaders communicate a clear vision, share a strong commitment to continuous school improvement and have high expectations of pupil attainment and behaviour. As a result, senior leaders have an accurate understanding of the school’s strengths and areas for improvement.

Staff across the school share a strong commitment to professional learning and benefit from valuable opportunities to identify and share good practice. This has helped the school to make important improvements, for example to strengthen the integrated therapeutic approach.

This resource provides self-reflection prompts to support strengthening leadership in independent special schools.