PROGRESS is said to be positive for a big increase in pupil numbers at the Coombe House special school in September.

By the time the autumn term starts the school anticipates having more than 100 Dorset  pupils – a target it wanted to achieve a year ago.

The former Catholic private school site, set in 55 acres near Shaftesbury, was bought by Dorset Council for more than £10 million after it ran into financial difficulties during the Covid years.

Dorset Council said at the time it would be converted for use by up to 280 pupils with special educational and physical needs.

Finance director of the council Aidan Dunn said the school would eventually save at least £8 million a year by not having to send Dorset pupils to privately run independent schools, usually out of the county.

But the school, in its new use, was plagued by troubles when it opened in June 2022 and was forced to close again within weeks.

It reopened in September 2022 after more building works and missing several staff, with 36 pupils on roll – 16 fewer pupils than it had on the opening day.

Since then new staff, including the head teacher, have been recruited with a new governing board and managing director.

Pupil numbers and good feedback has been gradually increasing with 84 pupils expected to be at the school by the end of the spring term.

At this week’s meeting of the shareholders in Dorchester on Monday Dorset councillors were told that steady progress is continuing at the site which includes the special school and what is known as the Centre of Excellence.

The meeting heard that Dorset Council officers have been offering support to the school but progress is now considered to have reached the stage where only ‘light touch’ engagement is required and even that will be reviewed in the summer.

Reports from chairman of the board, Ian Comfort, said there was now confidence in achieving 116 pupils at the start of the September term, subject to being able to recruit sufficient teaching staff which was looking positive.

Dorset Council leader Cllr Spencer Flower, who chairs the shareholder committee, said he was delighted by the news.

“This is another example of the steady progress which is being made – huge compliments to everyone involved making this this success it is,” he said.

Site managing director Andy Holder said progress was also being made in the wider use of facilities with a community swimming club enjoying increased use of the pool, the business plan on track and good, regular positive feedback from the School Council, parents, carers and other stakeholders.

He said staff engagement had also been judged to be above the national average with finances ahead of budget projections.

In 2021 when Dorset Council bought the site it was said that sending each SEND student from the county to independent providers was costing an average of £60,000 per year, with the Coombe House facility expected to cost £22,000 per pupil – amounting, when the school is full, to an annual saving of at least £8million. The costings are likely to have increased since then.

Also planned for the site, although not yet implemented, is a centre for professional learning and development, where experts from across the region, and possibly nationally, come together to learn, research and improve their practice in supporting children and young SEND pupils.

The site also hopes to offer short breaks and respite care for vulnerable children and adults, as well as facilities for Dorset children in care and care leavers.

The financial figures and business plan were not available to the press and public at Monday’s meeting.