COOMBE House School is said to be “on target” for growth – with additional pupils expected to join the 56 already there, bringing the total to 72 by the end of the autumn term.

Dorset Council Corporate director Claire Shiels, who provides the council link with the independent school, near Shaftesbury, said that the school’s growth is in line with expectations in the business plan.

She told a shareholders committee on Monday that the school has also improved its community engagement and agreed new block contracts for pupil places which are at the lower end of benchmark costs compared to the national benchmark figures.

Chair of the independent Dorset Centre for Excellence (which manage the school), Ian Comfort, said that compared to 12 months ago the school had made good progress from the recovery situation it was then in – having opened and then being forced to shut within a few weeks, only to re-open again with fewer pupils, all of which have additional needs.

Managing Director Andy Holder told the meeting that an Ofsted inspection was imminent and would shortly be published: “I think it is reasonable to say that Ofsted have reflected the progress that has been made thus far… it’s positive news,” he said.

He told councillors that plans were in progress for the school to take on more of the buildings already on the site from Dorset Council to ensure there was enough classroom space available for September 2024.

“There is an awful lot of focus to ensure the next ‘bank’ of classrooms are available for us by then,” he said.

Mr Holder said that work was continuing on the walled garden and allotments which would provide practical work opportunities as well as fresh fruit and vegetables for the school.

He said that work was also ongoing on preparing older pupils for adulthood including the use of a self-contained flat and other projects.

He said some school facilities, including the pool, were now being made available for local people and a neighbouring primary school.

Mr Holder said that the school business plan included provision for a loan and negotiations for a re-newed lease for the site from Dorset Council which was progressing well. He said the loan had not yet been needed but it was agreed and available and under-pinned the business plan.

He said that the school was now fully-staffed and its improved reputation was helping attract quality staff.

Diane Grannell, who chairs the finance committee, said that there was a high degree of confidence that the projections in the business plan would be bettered by the end of the year and that the additional classroom space would be ready in time, by September 2024, although there was a contingency plan in place should there be delays.

The Dorset Centre for Excellence is a project by Dorset Council to create a school and a centre of excellence for children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND).

Dorset Council say the project aims to improve the lives and outcomes of Dorset children with SEND, as well as to reduce the costs of sending them to independent special schools, often out of the county.

The new school and centre of excellence is on the former St Mary’s School site, which was bought by Dorset Council for around £10 million, although more has been spent since on building works.

St Mary’s School was a Catholic independent boarding and day school for girls aged 9 to 18, which closed in 2020 due to financial difficulties. The site has extensive educational facilities within 55 acres, including classrooms, sports halls, swimming pool, theatre, chapel, and farm.

Eventually Coombe House, as it is now known, could cater for around 280 pupils with SEND, offering both day and residential places. The school will also provide vocational training in subjects like agriculture to prepare young people for the workplace.

The Centre of Excellence will be a hub for professional learning and development, where experts from across the region, and possibly nationally, can come together to learn, research and improve their practice in supporting children and young people with SEND. The centre will also offer short breaks and respite care for vulnerable children and adults, as well as facilities for Dorset children in care and care leavers.

Dorset Council says the Dorset Centre of Excellence project is part of a wider plan by the authority to invest £37.5 million over five years to create more provision for children with SEND in the county – other projects include creating new specialist units at existing school sites throughout the county.