Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Nurture groups

Published By: The Independent - 06 Oct 2007

Imagine a quick, effective, affordable way of helping troubled young children overcome their problems and keep up in school. Imagine the difference it would make to those children’s later lives, and the huge savings it would offer society in terms of the educational and youth support services that would no longer be necessary.

If such a thing exists, surely it would be up and running in every school in the land?

Well it does. It has done for nearly 40 years. But only now is its full potential coming to light.

Nurture groups were first set up in London in the 1970s by an educational psychologist, Marjorie Boxall, who realised that children who arrived in the classroom from stressful and disrupted backgrounds were never going to flourish unless they were given a safe place in school where they could develop and grow. Many of these children, she saw, behaved more like toddlers than young children, and needed to catch up socially and emotionally, before they could cope.

Such groups were taken up enthusiastically at first, but then fell victim to a changing educational climate in which any sort of special schooling came to seen as exclusive, and where schools were swept up in the league table culture. In 1998 there were only 50 nurture groups in the whole of the UK.

Now, though, that is changing fast. Today’s heads and teachers understand better than their predecessors how emotional wellbeing underpins learning. They are also coping with a rising tide of young children with problems. In addition, the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda has turned the spotlight on the power of early intervention, and on the needs of the individual child.

“For a time there was something of a conflict between the achievement culture and the nurturing culture but nurture groups have grown fast over the past five years,” says Jim Rose, director of the Nurture Group Network. “There are at least 1,000, and probably more, in primary schools, mostly in key stage one, although they spread right across the primary range, and there are now also about a hundred in secondary schools.”
In addition, evidence for them is mounting. In Glasgow, which has 58 groups, research findings published earlier this year showed that they have a significant impact not only on attendance and behaviour, but also on academic achievement.

Groups usually cater for 10 to 12 children, picked by careful assessment, who spend part of their day in them for anything from a few months to just over a year before returning full-time to the classroom. They are run by specially-trained teachers and teaching assistants who offer a warm, highly-structured environment where children are encouraged to build their confidence and learn good behaviour. Children get plenty of hugs and chances to play, as well as clear rules, and coaching in such basics as how to share and to have a conversation.

The input is intense, praise and encouragement are constant, but the rewards are high. The London borough of Enfield has had nurture groups since 1981, and now has 13, which it supports with training and other help. A study of them, conducted in the 1990s, showed that 83 per cent of children who had been supported in a nurture group were able to later function in the classroom without additional help, compared to only 55 per cent of children with similar problems who had not had the nurture group experience. “These groups are a proven and powerful way to work with children and their parents,” says nurture group training and liaison officer Gill Buckland, pointing out that the alternatives of providing a child with full-time learning support or a special needs school place can cost anything up to £20,000 a year.

“All the work seems to be suggesting that nurture groups are very effective,” says Paul Cooper, professor of education at Leicester University, who has been evaluating their impact, “and what is really important is that they seem to have a whole school effect. Not only do children in the nurture group improve, but other children in school with similar problems also improve. A properly functioning nurture group will be feeding ideas into the school about how to deal with children, and will offer teachers a much more positive way of thinking about the kind of children who often leave them in despair. “

But groups won’t work if they are imposed on schools by local authorities, he warns. “They have to come from the school, and the role of the head seems to be particularly important.”

Carole Williams, head of Short Wood Primary School, in Telford, is one head who would not be without her nurture group. “It takes six in children from nursery and reception. These children are the kind of children who are unable to negotiate and collaborate, are withdrawn, or find it difficult to communicate. After twelve weeks they are reintegrated, and out of the 36 or so who’ve been in the group since it started only two have not maintained the progress they made in the nurture room, and one of those has a statement (of special educational need) and the other has developmental delay. But that is still not a failure. One of the things about nurture groups is that they allow you to get a statement for a child much more quickly because so much of the preliminary work has already been done. I’d say to any head: do it. It’s so valuable in all sorts of ways. For one thing, parents are encouraged to get involved, and then they are watching how other adults behave towards their children and learning from that.”

Telford and Wrekin local education authority is now planning to support more school nurture groups. “We’ve now got them in seven primary schools and one secondary,” says Eileen Greenaway, a behaviour support teacher. “The beauty of the model is that it’s so flexible. All the children go back into the mainstream, but if one of them is having a bad day in the classroom you can always say, ‘Come and have a snack with us.’ And then they stay a little time, and feel better, and go back. And the results are fantastic. Children sometimes have a dip when they first return full-time to the classroom but after two terms they are usually back on track.”

Alison Turk is a warm, funny, loving and firm teaching assistant whose small group of eight- and nine-year-olds clearly adore her. They laugh when she pulls faces, and respond when she coaxes them to talk. One little boy can barely tear his eyes from her face.

“Now we’ve got some visitors this afternoon,” she says, once the half dozen boys and their two leaders are sitting in a circle “and we’re going to introduce ourselves and tell them what we’re good at.”

Hesitantly the boys all offer that they are good at cartwheels, maths and art. These children are not used to feeling good about anything, and their wary eyes and restless manner show that have many problems to overcome. But they are making progress. “In here,” says Alison Turk, “we share and we care for others, don’t we? We are gentle and we have feelings for other people. And you are all very good at that.”

Two boys act as waiters and pass round juice and biscuits, which are eaten with careful manners and ‘no gulping’, then the talk turns to the techniques that this special room has helped them to develop.

“If you’re upset,” says one, “you can use square breathing. That’s when you breathe in for four, and then you hold it for four, and then you let it out for four, and then you wait for another four. After I do it I feel better.”

Alison Turk says she has watched pupils use it to calm themselves in playground confrontations. “We do a lot of talking about emotions in here.”

Ticehurst and Flimwell Church of England Primary School, set in the rolling green landscape of East Sussex, looks like an idyllic small village school, but like all schools today it takes in a steady minority of children who are too withdrawn or troubled to cope with learning. Two years ago it set up Neptune’s Kingdom, a colourful sea-themed room where such children can go on a regular basis to work in a safe and homely environment on learning basic social and emotional skills, and on building up their confidence and self-esteem. The core group go for several afternoons a week, other small groups less often, but all feel the benefit -- as does everyone in the school.

Deputy head Lisa Hobby says the atmosphere in her classroom has been fundamentally changed by the most disruptive pupils getting support, while head Maggie Sharpe says “One of our boys has been completely transformed.”

Alison Turk points out the nurture group also provides an ideal, informal way of working with parents. “Parents are doing the best they can, but they are often struggling. They see us like friends. I’ve even been rung up in the evening and asked to tell one of my boys that he has to have a bath!” Almost all the children move out of the nurture group after a few terms and back into the classroom, where most are able to settle down to learning and to handle school life.

Yet it has been relatively inexpensive to organise. The room is a former stock room, with furniture from IKEA, and is staffed by two specially trained teaching assistants. Alison Turk, who helped to set it up, also persuaded the local community fund to contribute £500. This summer she won the award for Teaching Assistant of the Year in the South East for her work. “I’ve always veered towards the more challenging children,” she says, giving one a quick hug as he leaves the room. “Once you understand them, it’s easy to work with them.”