The nature of nurture

Ron Davie argues that a way of tackling behavioural problems pioneered in the 1970s is due for a comeback.

If I said that a seminal new book should be read by all education ministers and their shadows, that would probably kill it stone dead. So I won't. I will say, though, that it should be read by all who are concerned about the increasing incidence of behaviour problems in our schools and about the significant and worrying escalation in the number of pupils excluded in recent years.

The implications for schools are serious enough. The implications for society of a growing number of alienated young people with little or no adequate alternative educational provision, at risk of drifting into a life of crime or drugs, or both, are frightening.

The answer is not - as one prominent and otherwise sensible leader of a teaching union would apparently have us believe - to blame the parents for this state of affairs. Of course, children may bring into school clear signs of inadequate, confused or disrupted parenting. However, blaming parents fails to acknowledge that circumstances in the community and in society at large can either be supportive of, or underline, parental care.

Furthermore, simply laying the blame at the parents' door - or at the door of any external factors - underplays the role of the school and ignores the evidence that schools in similar catchment areas can have markedly different success in responding to and preventing behaviour problems and educational failure.

Marion Bennathan and Marjorie Boxall in their excellent book, Effective Intervention in Primary Schools (David Fulton), remind us of this fact and offer an approach that, though successful, has had little publicity in the 26 years or so of its existence. This approach could, they assert, transform the present situation because it has been evaluated and shown to be effective over a long period; its transparent validity and practical effectiveness are greeted with enthusiasm by schools and teachers who have become involved; it not only helps with extreme behavioural difficulties but also raises awareness and enhances skills throughout the school in understanding and managing learning and adjustment problems.

The story starts a generation ago when there was much anxiety about the extent of educational retardation and behavioural problems in schools, particularly in inner-city areas. One London borough study in the mid-l970s found that nearly 20 per cent of l0-year-olds were rated by their teachers as showing "behavioural deviance".

As many as 25 per cent of the parents interviewed reported behaviour in their children which was assessed as showing varying degrees of "psychiatric disorder". A subsequent study by the Inner London Education Authority Research Unit produced a broadly similar picture.

In 1970, Marjorie Boxall, then an ILEA educational psychologist in north London, had established in an infants and a junior school what she described as "nurture groups" in an attempt to deal with some of the most severe manifestations of the problem. She had the enthusiastic co-operation of the schools and the support of her colleagues and the ILEA.

These groups were special classes of 12 children "showing signs of severely deprived early childhoods, unable to learn because of extreme withdrawal or disruptiveness. For some children, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong".

A pamphlet by Boxall describing this initiative, published by the ILEA in 1976, is reproduced in the book. This spells out the nature of the problem and the rationale for nurture groups. The children for whom the groups are designed are felt to have missed out in vital areas of their early development and care because of "the severe social fragmentation and stress" in their families. The effect has been to stunt or to distort the children's emotional, social and intellectual growth. The children have lacked the continuing, reliable interaction with adults on which such growth crucially depends.

The rationale of the work of the nurture group is that it recreates this positive, constructive interaction with adults, initially the teacher and helper, "in an environment which is carefully managed and protective".

Importantly, the group needs to be seen as an integral part of the school; and the philosophy, objectives and, to an extent, the methodology used must be espoused by other staff. Any implication that the group is viewed as a "sin bin" would be disastrous.

The evident success of the first two experimental nurture groups in the early 1970s led to their steady expansion until, by the late 1970s, about 50 primary schools in inner London had groups. Nor was this initiative confined to London; nurture groups sprang up elsewhere in Britain and visitors from overseas carried the message farther afield. The Warnock Report in 1978 (on special educational needs) commended the work of the groups.

However, Marjorie Boxall's retirement and the disbandment of the lLEA in the late 1980s left the nurture movement leaderless. Nevertheless, Enfield, for example, is one education authority that has continued using - and systematically evaluating - such groups; and in Newcastle the LEA has taken the original model (of nurture groups serving individual schools) and adapted it to one where each group serves a local area.

Little is now known about nurture groups elsewhere. This book places on record the success of the groups where they have been tried and attempts to revive the initiative. The book also has two excellent chapters on responding to children's needs and on preventing educational failure, drawing both on experience from the nurture groups and other evidence on children's development, and relating it to the work of the teacher and the school framework.

Marion Bennathan ends with a bold but nevertheless very persuasive claim: "If all [primary] schools in areas of high deprivation were run on nurturing principles that come either from the presence of a nurture group, or from a close knowledge of their rationale and methods, the long-term benefits to children and to society would be immense". Government ministers et al, please note.

Ron Davie is an educational and child psychologist, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, and has honorary academic posts at Newcastle University and University College London.

"Stop Children Failing in Primary School: Effective Intervention Nurture Groups", study day on November 2 in Birmingham. Details, telfax 0121-62890096285900

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