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Sector report: Independent specialist colleges 2021-2022


No. of independent specialist colleges January 2022


No. of independent specialist colleges January 2021

Independent specialist colleges educate around 200 learners across Wales aged 16 years and over. The colleges provide for a diverse range of learners’ needs, including autistic spectrum condition, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and profound and multiple learning difficulties. In four of the colleges, many learners live in residential homes attached to the college.

Nearly all placements at independent specialist colleges are funded by the Welsh Government in Wales or local authorities for learners from England.

Core inspections and monitoring visits

In addition to full inspections, we carry out regular monitoring visits of independent specialist colleges. These visits consider the progress made by the colleges against specific recommendations from core inspections and previous monitoring visits.

This year, we carried out five monitoring visits and no core inspections. The findings from all these visits have informed this report.


Over time, many learners made strong progress in relation to their individual starting points. They developed their communication and practical skills particularly well. For example, they followed a visual recipe for cooking a meal for supper or used signing to make an oak bench in the woodwork area.

In three colleges, many learners developed their practical skills through well-planned and purposeful tasks in a range of realistic contexts. For example, in one college, learners made coat hooks and door handles in an iron forge, collected eggs on the farm, and grew food to be used in the college kitchen and residential homes. They followed established routines to complete tasks with increasing independence such as creating shopping lists, buying ingredients and making pastries as part of their life skills curriculum.

In all colleges, most learners successfully completed relevant qualifications or accreditation. However, restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic continued to have an impact on the progress of learners, particularly in regard to the readiness of learners in the final year of their course to progress successfully to their next stage of life and learning.

Well-being and attitudes to learning

Many learners made valuable progress in developing their confidence and resilience across a worthwhile range of learning experiences that supported the development of their well-being effectively.

Many learners participated well in lessons. They understood and followed routines appropriately and worked positively with their peers to complete tasks independently or as part of a group. For example, they collaborated enthusiastically in music sessions, and supported each other well when checking the health of guinea pigs in their animal care session.

Most learners developed strong working relationships with teaching staff and their peers. Because of the skilful support they received, they felt safe during sessions, which helped them to engage well, manage their own behaviour and improve the quality of their work. With their peers, most learners demonstrated respect for each other and celebrated achievements together positively.

Teaching and learning experiences

In all colleges, tutors and support staff provided attentive and caring support. They knew the needs of their learners well and built positive working relationships with them. 

Tutors planned carefully to provide a relevant and meaningful range of learning experiences, which they adapted carefully to meet the diverse needs across the college. In many cases, planning continued to focus strongly on activities that promoted learners’ wellbeing explicitly. Tutors managed risks associated with the workplace carefully and learners developed a strong understanding of relevant health and safety considerations.

This approach helped to support the development of learners’ resilience, as well as valuable independence and life skills including travel training, money management and interview skills.

Cameo: Aspris College South

In 2021, the college moved to new accommodation, which includes learning and wellbeing rooms, an ICT suite, a teaching kitchen, a quiet room and clinical offices. This accommodation provides an engaging and inviting learning environment, which meets the needs of learners particularly well. The college has also invested in a local allotment, which is in the early stages of development.

A notable feature of the college’s new accommodation is a ‘working cafe’. This highly beneficial resource offers learners valuable opportunities to complete work experience in a known environment, which is open to the public. Learners use this resource effectively to develop their social, food technology and financial management skills and understanding. They also benefit from completing food hygiene qualifications.

Where there are shortcomings in teaching, this was because teaching did not meet the complex needs of learners well enough. In two colleges, there was too much variability in teaching staff’s understanding and application of communication strategies to support learners’ communication needs. In one college, tutors did not plan well enough for the progressive development of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills and tutors’ feedback did not identify clearly enough what learners needed to do to improve their work.

Care, support and guidance

Four colleges visited this year provided a calm, supportive and nurturing environment that promotes the wellbeing of learners effectively. Despite the considerable challenges caused by the pandemic, staff continued to adapt approaches flexibly to meet the needs of learners and to promote their safety and physical wellbeing. As a result, most learners had high levels of wellbeing, which in turn ensured that many made at least secure progress in their learning.

In four of the colleges, leaders adapted and adjusted their provision appropriately to enable learners to continue on their programmes and maintained detailed records of learners’ progress during this time. This careful monitoring helped colleges to assess the impact of the pandemic on learners’ progress and identify suitable responses to address this. For example, one college put in place robust attendance plans to support anxious learners to return to fulltime face-to-face education.

In one college visited this year, the specialist provision the college itself made to support learners’ complex needs was underdeveloped. As a result, many learners continued to rely on support provided by clinical teams within their placing authority and local health board to provide ongoing guidance to meet their specialist needs, even after they had joined the college.


In three of the colleges, leaders responded positively to the feedback from previous monitoring visits. They had an accurate understanding of the college’s strengths and priorities for improvement and implemented appropriate systems to quality assure and monitor progress against key aspects of their work.

In two colleges, this approach helped to ensure that, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, leaders were able to bring about significant improvements to the college’s accommodation and facilities to increase the opportunities available to learners. In two colleges however, recent changes to the leadership of the college, together with the challenge of managing the college during the pandemic, had a negative impact on the strategic leadership of the college. In these colleges, self-evaluation and quality assurance processes lacked rigour and did not inform the college’s priorities for improvement well enough.

In two colleges, professional learning did not focus well enough on or respond well enough to the full range of needs of learners who attend the college. This resource provides self-reflection prompts to support professional learning in independent specialist colleges.

Generally, leaders confirmed that they continued to face significant challenges around the recruitment and retention of suitably qualified and experienced staff, including the recruitment of therapeutic staff, as well as pressures caused by recent increases in the costs of making specialist provision due to inflation. In addition, leaders expressed ongoing concerns about issues arising from the implementation of ALN reform. These include the transfer of funding for specialist college placements from the Welsh Government to local authorities, as well as concerns identified in Estyn’s recent thematic report Impartial careers advice and guidance to young people aged 14-16 years provided by Careers Wales advisers (Estyn, 2022) about the future impartiality of advice and guidance for learners in special schools when considering their post-16 options.