Skip to content
Special School pupil with adult

Sector report: Maintained special 2021-2022

There are 40 maintained special schools in Wales providing education for almost 5,500 pupils.

The number of pupils in special schools has increased year-on-year for the past 10 years. Three schools provide education through the medium of Welsh. There are no special schools in Ceredigion or Monmouthshire.

Many special schools provide education for children from 3-19 years. Increasingly special schools are educating children with more complex needs. Typically, special schools provide education for pupils with cognition and learning difficulties that can be classed as profound, severe or moderate. In addition, our special schools cater for pupils with autistic spectrum condition; speech, communication and language difficulties; or physical and/or medical including sensory conditions such as hearing and/or visual impairments. A few schools have residential respite provision and a very few schools cater almost exclusively for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Engagement visits

We made engagement visits to two schools during the year. In addition nine schools contributed to thematic work.

Core inspections

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, core inspections only took place from the end of January to July 2022. During this time three schools were inspected.


Two schools were removed from the category of Estyn review and one remains in Estyn review. One school was placed in special measures.


The needs and age range of pupils that attend maintained special schools vary considerably.

Overall, due to the strong support and encouragement they received from staff, most pupils met revised personal targets and developed appropriate skills.

Most pupils developed their communication skills well and became increasingly confident in using these skills in different contexts. For example, they expressed understanding and needs through gesture, sign, writing and vocalisations, including speech. More able pupils engaged in detailed and meaningful conversations and used subject specific and technical language well. Pupils developed their reading and writing skills appropriately, from recognising and understanding symbols to choosing and reading books from a range of fiction and non-fiction texts. Pupils’ writing skills extended from sensory mark-making and single letter formation to writing at length and for different purposes including analysing poetry as part of an English literature course.

Many pupils developed numeracy skills that allowed them to, for example, understand the difference between big and small or long and short. Where appropriate, pupils developed their numeracy skills and were able to recognise numbers and their value and complete operations such as additions, subtractions, multiplication and division. Over time, pupils gained an understanding of the value of money and how to use money in real life contexts, for example to budget trips to the shop and calculate the change they should receive.

Many pupils developed and applied their creative skills well. This included participating enthusiastically in the school choir. In addition, pupils engaged eagerly with song and dance activities that are used to good effect to reinforce their learning. Pupils produced attractive artwork including watercolours and digital photography. They created exciting computer games and produced props and special effects for school-based media productions. For example at Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn, film skills had a significant and positive impact on pupils’ confidence, engagement, resilience and skills development. The school kindly provided a case study on Enhancing curriculum experience through film skills.

In their April 2022 publication Young People not in education, training or employment (Welsh Government, 2022, table 4), the Welsh Government identified that young people between the ages of 16-18 years, with a disability, are nearly three times more likely not to be in education, employment or training compared with non-disabled young people of the same age. This has worsened over at least the previous three years. The report suggested that just under a fifth of disabled 16 to 18-year-olds were not in education, training or employment.


During the autumn term 2021, we noted that a few pupils struggled to reintegrate and conform successfully to expectations and routines and leaders reported that the social and emotional needs of pupils overall had increased. Through our inspection work over the next two terms, we noted that many pupils, with the sensitive support of staff, demonstrated positive attitudes to learning and persevered well. Many pupils had positive attitudes to learning and they re-engaged well with their classmates. Pupils learned once again to become accepting of individual differences and supportive of one another. As a result, pupils became increasingly confident in their learning and as individuals.

In his report for Welsh Government, Attendance review – implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for school attendance the former Chief Inspector of schools in Wales noted that “…schools with the lowest attendance rates during the pandemic and its aftermath have been special schools…” (Welsh Government, 2022, p14). This could be attributed to families not wishing to send their children to school, perhaps because of their particular healthcare needs or due to the additional health threats that COVID-19 posed, although it is difficult to generalise based on the available evidence. Attendance of pupils in special schools has been improving but is generally lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Teaching and learning experiences

By the end of the summer term, most special schools were generally well placed to implement curriculum reform. In most cases, the curriculum offer was generally well matched to the principles and purposes of the Curriculum for Wales. Special schools used their existing strong networks to work collaboratively on developing their curriculum offers. Nearly all special schools are implementing the Curriculum for Wales from September, including just under a third of special schools with secondary aged pupils.

Generally, leaders across special schools recognised the continued need for a flexible curriculum to respond to the needs of pupils due to their differing experiences during the pandemic. Schools ensure that the skills of staff are generally very well matched to the needs of pupils. Through our inspection work, we noted that valuable links with external providers began to gradually resume. These provided pupils with beneficial learning experiences, including visits to places of local interest, the development of vocational skills and work-related learning opportunities. These experiences engaged learners well, developing their confidence and self-esteem. Where these external links do not exist, the curriculum offer is too narrow and not always matched well enough to the needs and aspirations for pupils.

Generally, staff continue to have a secure understanding of the needs of pupils. Enhanced communication between schools and parents ensured that schools quickly understood the changing needs of pupils. Most special schools responded appropriately to the experiences of their pupils over the period of the pandemic. They continued to sensitively adapt their planning and re-arranged class groups and re-purposed spaces to allow for the teaching of pupils in small groups or on an individual basis where appropriate.

Staff absence and arranging for suitable cover continue to be a challenge in special schools. Pupils with complex difficulties often found it challenging to establish relationships with unfamiliar staff. Overall, staff have shown great resilience and creativity in adapting to the restrictions that were in place, including operating strict contact groups that limited the movement of pupils around the school and restricting whole school events. In our inspection of Crownbridge Special Day School, we commented on the increased use of online platforms that allowed pupils to host and present whole school assemblies. “…These are uplifting experiences, enjoyed by pupils who engage with passion, enthusiasm and unbridled enjoyment…”

Care, support and guidance

In recent years, care, support and guidance have been good or better in many special schools. In our report Summary of engagement calls and visits to schools and PRUs Autumn 2021 (Estyn 2022, p.7), we noted that nearly all leaders in special schools continued to share clear approaches to assessing, monitoring, and evaluating pupil well-being. Providing well-being interventions has had a positive effect on pupils. These approaches, together with re-establishing routines, relationships and structures, assisted greatly in restoring the regular attendance of many pupils. School staff supported families well. For example, at Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn, family engagement had a very positive impact, ensuring that pupils were safe and supported in their well-being and learning.

A literature review conducted by the Welsh Government highlighted a number of relevant pieces of research on the impact of disasters on the well-being and mental health of school aged children. This included research by Asbury and others, which found that parents reported that there were increased mental health difficulties experienced by children with additional learning needs. Such difficulties included anxiety, low mood, acting out and behaviour changes, and parents suggested that children that had better understanding of the COVID-19 situation had better outcomes than those who had a limited understanding. Further research by Pearcey and others on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic acknowledged that children with additional learning needs were worried about returning to school because of “…things being uncertain or different, changes to routine, the enjoyable parts of the school not happening, and being away from home…”.

Our thematic report Impartial careers advice and guidance to young people aged 14-16 years provided by Careers Wales advisers (Estyn, 2022, p19) highlighted that careers advisers have a strong understanding of the needs of pupils in special schools and provide a high degree of advocacy for them, representing their views and needs in meetings. The Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act (2018) no longer gives careers advisers a statutory role in assessing pupils’ needs or advocating on their behalf. Staff in special schools, local authorities and Careers Wales were not clear about how, or if, this role would adapt to ensure that pupils with ALN have access to independent advice and guidance and support to plan their transition into future education, employment or training.

In general, special schools were well placed to implement ALN reform. Personcentred practices were a long-standing feature of the work of the sector and staff in many special schools have used their expertise to support colleagues in mainstream schools in developing personcentred practices.

Over time, the expertise in special schools has been used to influence the design and use of locally agreed individual development plans that are beginning to replace statements of special educational needs. However, as of July 2022, it was not always clear to schools or parents whether individual development plans would be maintained by local authorities or schools, and this has created uncertainty for parents and schools.

In a preliminary report titled ‘The Education of Autistic Pupils in Wales’, Davies noted that many parents of pupils with autism that attended specialist settings, including special schools, were happy with the school (Davies, 2021). This contrasts starkly with the 46% of parents that were happy with mainstream schools. These results broadly align with those provided by parents in our pre-inspection questionnaires.

Leadership and management

Leaders in special schools continued to face operational challenges daily. They generally showed great resilience and adaptability. They remained optimistic and were generally resolute in securing provision that meets the wellbeing and learning needs of pupils and ensured that staff too were supported during times of organisational and personal challenge.

Staff absence continued to be an issue and, in a few cases, impacted negatively on the school. Leaders identified continued challenges in securing supply teachers to cover absences.

Leaders in many special schools ensured that staff had suitable opportunities to develop their knowledge, understanding and skills across a wide range of issues, including the delivery of national initiatives such as curriculum and ALN reform. Activities in relation to self-evaluation and improvement planning began to resume as the effects of the pandemic eased. Schools inspected have generally reflected well on their responses to the unpredictability brought by the pandemic.