Our brand new school and centre of excellence for special educational needs and disability, Abbey School for Exceptional Children, has opened in Chester’s historic Abbey Square.

The Grade II* listed Georgian building has been transformed into a state-of-the-art school as part of a sensitive refurbishment project designed by award-winning lead designers Barron Design Architectural Technologists, in collaboration with Donald Insall Associates as Conservation Architects and in consultation with Chester Cathedral Architect, Tony Barton, and delivered by main contractor Read Construction.


Click here to take a look around Abbey School in our video tour.


With up to 75 places for children and young persons aged 4-19 years old, the school will cater for students with a diagnosis of autism and/or severe learning difficulties, who may display behaviour of concern or behaviour that challenges families and services.

Abbey School Principal, Dr Katy Lee, said: “This is a hugely exciting moment for everyone at Abbey School, and we’re absolutely thrilled to see our vision for the school come to fruition and to be opening our doors to our very first cohort of pupils. We chose Barron Design, because they are experts at designing exemplar buildings for people with autism and we wanted to create the very best possible school for our students. We have worked closely with their team and in consultation with the expert team at Chester Cathedral to create a school that is an exemplar in design for individuals with autism and behaviours that challenge and sits beautifully within the surrounding conservation area.”

“We look forward to welcoming our students and starting the journey with them to deliver the very best education possible.”

Set within the grounds of Chester’s ancient cathedral, the original buildings were constructed in 1750 as town houses for the clergy, with generously sized rooms, high ceilings and ornate decoration. As part of the project, the original fabric of the building and period features, including an original Chinese Chippendale staircase and stained glass windows, have been retained and restored, while alterations that respond to the needs of the pupils and create an outstanding learning environment have been incorporated.

The air flow within the building was a key element of the school’s design, and a state-of-the-art sustainable MultiRoom Ventilation and Heat Recovery system together with air source heat pumps control the air flow within the school – creating a comfortable environment for teaching and learning. Noise control within the classrooms is also key and has been achieved using modern techniques of absorption and reverberation control.

Pupil safety has been carefully considered throughout the design process, with many modern interventions including reinforcement of plasterwork walls, secondary glazing with laminated glass and robust furniture and fittings, whilst properly respecting the historic fabric of the buildings.

Classrooms are equipped with colour-coded customised door bells to assist children with visual challenges in identifying their classroom. Specialist hygiene rooms have also been installed to provide students with a comfortable environment to learn self-care.

Externally, the school features a number of new play areas including a jungle gym, a multi-use games area, and a gazebo where students can play and relax.

Craig Barron, Director at Barron Design, said: “It’s been a pleasure to work as part of an exceptional project team to transform this amazing Grade II* listed building into a state-of-the-art school, which complements its historic setting within the grounds of Chester Cathedral. We have retained the fabric of the building and restored its beautiful historic features, while seamlessly incorporating a number of modern interventions to improve, safety, accessibility, and create the very best user experience possible.

“It’s been a privilege to leverage our team’s deep knowledge and experience designing facilities for people with autism on this development and we’re proud to have designed this exemplar school building, which will enhance the learning journey for children and young people with SEND.”

Chester Cathedral Architect, Tony Barton, said: “For this unique and wonderful building to be beautifully repaired and expertly converted by the school is a substantial boost for the City and Chester Cathedral. The investment is a testament of faith in our historic buildings and will bring even more new life into this special place.”

Matthew Nicholas, Contracts Manager at Read Construction, said: “Read is delighted to have worked on this prestigious scheme with the Abbey School team. From conception to handover, the project has been truly collaborative with a whole team approach ensuring the successful completion. We are delighted to have delivered this modern learning environment for our client.”

Abbey School is introducing a number of ground-breaking new methods to provide an outstanding teaching and learning experience, with the wellbeing of students and staff sitting at the heart of the school’s philosophy.

Employing a holistic approach, which targets learning and development through mutual engagement and participation, the Abbey School model draws on a range of academic, social, and functional activities. The school’s highly trained multi-disciplinary team will deliver a pupil-centred, blended curriculum. It seamlessly integrates academic and social learning with Positive Behaviour Support – a framework for assessing, promoting, and evaluating behaviour change in an ethical and culturally sensitive way.

Core to the school’s approach will be a strategic research partnership with SEND experts at Bangor University and Warwick University – both institutions are globally renowned leaders in the field of SEND educational research and development. The Abbey School Educational Research Alliance (ERA), will see Abbey School collaborate on a number of initiatives with both universities to develop the very best possible educational outcomes and experiences for children and young people at the school.

The school is investing over £1 million in research, development, evaluation, and training – working closely with the leading universities to introduce innovative approaches which give young people an outstanding educational experience which enables them to thrive. Eventually, Abbey School plans to create an ‘open-source’ model for its research, where other schools and teachers will be able to access its research, and draw on the learnings and findings from ERA within their own educational settings.

Other key initiatives being developed by the school include the creation of a new app, which will enable the school to evaluate and ensure the wellbeing of all school users, and help to ensure optimum effectiveness of teaching and high levels of engagement across all year groups.

Unlike any other specialist school in the UK, Abbey School also offers attractive funding solutions to placing Local Authorities, which can finance the school fees for all pupils attending the school.