Nurture groups

Harvey McGavin

Photographs: Photonica; Getty

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

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"Our capital of good nurture is diminishing fast and the fabric of society is at risk, for with each generation there are fewer people to provide good nurturing, and more children who have been deprived of it." The factors that inspired Marjorie Boxall to set up her first nurture groups 35 years ago are perhaps even more apparent today. Many children still grow up amid social upheaval, under stress or in poverty, and schools struggle to cope with the consequences. For some schools, nurture groups have become an integral part of special needs provision. And for many pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, they are a panacea. Small groups of pupils taught in informal surroundings with care and attention can quickly develop the social skills and confidence needed to manage life in a mainstream classroom.

With the number of nurture groups in the UK rapidly increasing, and research showing real benefits, training courses for nurture group staff - teachers and learning support assistants - are filling up months in advance. As inclusion gathers pace and with indiscipline on the rise, could nurture groups be a way of resolving two of the biggest problems facing schools?

How did nurture groups start?

In the late 1960s, Marjorie Boxall was an educational psychologist in Hackney, east London. The area had high levels of deprivation, and most of the pupils she saw showed behaviour typical of much younger children. They were withdrawn or disruptive, and would not co-operate with other children or follow instructions. In short, they were not ready for school. Her idea was to recreate a more family-like setting where the children could go through the stages of early child development so many had obviously missed out on, and learn the skills needed to cope in the classroom. Around that time, Marion Bennathan, now chair of the Nurture Group Network (NGN) - the coalition of teachers, psychologists and researchers that supports groups across the UK - was chief educational psychologist for the county of Avon.

"The philosophy was that if you put children into a lively, stimulating environment they would learn," she recalls. "But that takes for granted that children come into school with a lot of skills. For those who lacked those skills it made things worse. They often felt overwhelmed and showed their distress by withdrawal or disruption."

This was at a time of large-scale slum clearance, unemployment and immigration, and many children were growing up in difficult, stressful conditions. The movement grew in response to this, Ms Bennathan says. "In my work with teachers, my conviction grew that they had enormous capacity for understanding children that wasn't being drawn on." Increasing numbers of children were being referred to special schools with emotional and behavioural difficulties while still at infants' school. "Schools were desperate - they knew they weren't coping and they didn't know where to turn."

Back in Hackney, Ms Boxall - a friend of Ms Bennathan since they had trained together - had decided that if so many children were failing, schools needed to change. With the help of teachers and her employer, the Inner London Education Authority, she set up the first experimental "nurture groups" in a local junior school. Groups spread quickly across London and became established in Bath, Bristol, Derby, Kent, Newcastle and Sheffield.

By the 1980s, there were around 50 groups in London, and the 1985 Fish report Educational Opportunities for All? praised their work. But they were not universally acclaimed or understood, and were derided as "cakes and cuddles" by some ILEA inspectors. When the authority was abolished in 1989, support for nurture groups faltered and they continued in just a few outposts. In the past few years, however, there has been a huge revival in the movement.

What's the definition of a nurture group?

The classic group developed by Marjorie Boxall consists of between 10 and 12 children who are looked after by a teacher and an assistant. The group is an integral part of the school but different from ordinary classes.

Though it might be based in a classroom, the room is decorated in an informal, domestic fashion, with a sofa and armchairs, curtains, cushions, and soft lighting. It has four main areas themed around home, kitchen, work and play. Children register with their mainstream class each morning and return there for the end of the day. They also join the rest of their class for some group activities. But most of their time - equivalent to about four-and-a-half days of the week - is spent with the group.

A typical day

After the children are collected from their class, the day starts with a group discussion or activity of about 20 minutes followed by individual tasks such as drawing or writing in a diary. Next comes breakfast.

Mealtimes are important because they provide an opportunity for learning and improving basic social skills such as waiting, taking turns and sharing. Providing food is one of the most fundamental acts of caring one person can show another - thereby encouraging the nurturing aspect of the group. Afternoon activities might include storytime or craft sessions. A structured pattern to the day promotes feelings of predictability and security among the children. Nurture groups follow their own curriculum alongside the national curriculum so that when children are reintegrated into mainstream classes they don't have to make up ground. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that children learn faster in nurture groups than they would if they were struggling in a mainstream class.

Who decides who joins?

The NGN describes a typical nurture group child as having "disrupted early years, no opportunity to build secure emotional attachments and little experience of reliable and helpful adults, so they have no expectation that teachers will value them and encourage them". The standard method of assessing a child is the Boxall profile - a kind of questionnaire "for the structured observation of the developmental progress of school-age children" developed in the 1970s. There are 68 descriptions of behaviour divided into two sections and for each trait, the assessor - usually the teacher or special needs co-ordinator - has to score from zero to four according to whether the child is "not like this" or "like this to a marked extent".

One set of descriptions records developmental strands: for example, "listens with interest when the teacher explains something to the class" or "abides by the rules of an organised group game". The other provides a diagnostic profile - that is, "always has to be the first, or the best, or have the most attention" or "sullen, resentful and negative in general attitude and mood" - of factors that "inhibit or interfere with the learning process". These are plotted on a histogram that charts the behaviour and responses of the child against those expected of "competently functioning children" between three years and four months, and eight years of age.

The child's class teacher, the Senco and an educational psychologist may all be involved in the referral. Parents will be consulted too and, although some are sceptical about the concept at first, many of the most moving testimonies to the transforming effects of nurture groups come from grateful parents.

How successful are they?

Their recent evolution means there has been relatively little research. But the findings of a 1997 study in Enfield, north-east London - where nurture groups survived the abolition of ILEA and became well established - were overwhelmingly positive. It looked at 306 children who had been in six nurture groups. Some 87 per cent returned to mainstream classes within a year, 83 per cent of those required no extra help while 11 per cent went on to special schools. These outcomes were compared with a group of 20 children who would have been assigned a place but for whom no place was available. Only 50 per cent of them were able to stay in mainstream education with no help and 35 per cent went on to attend special schools.

Professor Paul Cooper of Leicester University has just completed a two-year national study, The Effectiveness of Nurture Groups. He says nurture groups are "extremely successful" for a wide range of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. "Not only do these children improve in terms of their emotional and behavioural functioning but improvements occur relatively quickly, typically in two terms. Behaviours associated with engagement with the curriculum improve - ability to settle down to work, the ability to work collaboratively with other pupils - and children become more sociable."

The "whole school effect"

The details of his findings provide even more compelling evidence. He found that the difficulties of children with emotional and behavioural disorders who were in schools without nurture groups worsened. But the behaviour of children in schools with nurture groups got better, whether they were in a group or not. This was a revelation.

Another striking effect appeared to be the "very quick turnaround in terms of kids' attitude to school". Children who were "labelled in some respects as failures, who were finding school a stressful and uncongenial experience, who are just not coping" changed within weeks from doing all they could to avoid school to being "very pro-school". "It is," says Professor Cooper, "probably the single most successful form of mainstream school provision for children with EBD I have seen."

Are there any children nurture groups cannot help?

Professor Cooper's research identified two distinct groups of children with EBD for whom the nurture group appeared to have less positive results - those with severe emotional difficulties and children with particular kinds of hyperactivity. Both groups seemed to make progress in the group but did not maintain improvements back in the classroom. He says the ordinary classroom environment just does not suit them.

How many groups are there?

In 1998, there were about 50 nurture groups in the UK. Today, there are more than 1,000. This remarkable upsurge of interest could be down to several factors, says Professor Cooper. "It may be something to do with the way schools have changed, particularly since the 1988 Education Act and the emphasis on league tables and testing at a young age," he says.

"Opportunities for teachers to engage with pupils in more personal and humanistic ways have been pushed to the sidelines by this curriculum focus."

Much of the credit for making nurture groups work must go to teachers, he says. "Society has a view of teachers as a static body of people who never change or learn anything new. This is a misconception. Teachers are already thinking in sophisticated ways of the emotional and social needs of their children in ways that 15 years ago would not have been as common."

The strength of feeling about the good nurture groups can do is illustrated by recent events in Glasgow. There, 17 groups were set up in September 2002 for a one-year trial. When it was announced in May last year that the groups would be discontinued, teachers, parents and children fought to save them. The Herald, Scotland's best selling paper, devoted an editorial to the story. The groups had been a resounding success ,with just eight out of 108 children taking part not showing improved behaviour. The scheme was saved and expanded and the city now has 29 groups.

Who pays for them?

Some far-sighted LEAs include nurture groups as part of their strategy and fund them accordingly. Despite glowing references in recent DfES papers on special education, there is still no specific central government funding.

Many have been set up under the Standards Fund, and there are concerns that they may disappear once this funding ends.

Doesn't it stigmatise children and cut them off from the rest of school?

The philosophy behind the groups is inclusive. "If you want inclusion of children with EBD you need nurture groups," says Ms Bennathan.

Professor Cooper says the fact they fit the Government's drive for inclusion could be another significant factor in their growing popularity.

"It is not a segregated form of provision. Children who go there are not stigmatised; it's just another class that certain people go to. They become proud of being in the nurture group. It's a nice place to be." The relationship between mainstream and nurture group teachers is central to the success of the group and managing the movement of children. Those in the group have daily contact with their classmates and are sometimes allowed to bring a friend from class into the group. The NGN recommends that the whole school should be involved in setting up a group, ideally with a training day for all staff. The head's support is essential.

Interestingly, the only school in Professor Cooper's research where the nurture group did not work well was one where it had been imposed from outside. "It takes a nurturing school to make a nurture group work," he says.

Can any school have a nurture group?

The typical group is in a primary school in an area of high social need.

But not all schools need them and they are not appropriate for all schools, says Professor Cooper. Small schools with a one-form entry cannot usually accommodate a group or sustain its numbers, although many are adopting nurturing principles. Off-site provision also does not always work because it conflicts with the integral approach central to their functioning. Most groups are in primary school, but an increasing number of secondaries are adapting the methodology to the needs of older children. The NGN wants to expand its work in this area.

How do you train to work in one?

The NGN offers individual training programmes for schools and provides all of the tutors for the three university courses at Cambridge, Leicester and the Institute of Education in London. It also offers the certificate course for individual LEAs. The course at Cambridge has turned out to be "the most successful certificated course Cambridge University has ever run", says Professor Cooper, who set it up when he was a lecturer there. At Leicester, the four-day courses that are run three times a year are all booked solid.

"Interesting initiatives come and go but this has really caught teachers'

imagination," he says.

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Harvey McGavin

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