Head of lower school Lynn Thomas felt sure they just needed some TLC and a place to talk, so she set up the Diamond nurture group. Wendy Wallace is dazzled by the results
Sixteen uniformed children are gathered in a large circle, throwing the "emotions ball". Fifteen-year-old Natasha catches the ball and reads the message uppermost on it: "describe a time you shared". She pauses and looks at one of the teachers for encouragement. "When I went to see my mum and dad," she says, and throws the ball on to the teacher, whose task is to "tell a player why you like them". "Natasha," she says, "I like you very much because I know things are difficult in life sometimes and you keep trying."
Natasha and the other children are members of Shevington high school's Diamond group, a secondary school nurture initiative that staff say is helping children learn. Nurture groups, which aim to boost children's emotional resilience through a balance of routine, structure and affection within a home-like atmosphere, are widespread in primary schools. Now, some education authorities are sponsoring them in secondary schools. One third of Wigan's 21 secondary schools have nurture groups. "If a nurture group works properly, the behaviour spreads throughout the school and it becomes a nurturing school," says Maggie Biddlestone, head of behaviour support at Wigan.
Shevington high is a calm, bright 11-16 comprehensive with only 800 pupils.
Situated in a leafy village just outside Wigan, it hardly looks like a school with many social or behavioural problems. But Shevington's catchment area means it takes in students from a wide range of backgrounds. And, as Maggie Biddlestone points out, "nurture groups are not just for deprived areas. They are about emotional development."
The Diamond group at Shevington has been running for the past three years and was the first one in a Wigan secondary. Since the founders of the nurture group movement did not develop a secondary version, staff here and elsewhere are building a model. "It is about understanding what the key principles are, and how they can fit the needs of a school and its students," says Jim Rose, director of the national Nurture Group Network.
Primary nurture groups occupy much of a child's time in school, for up to four terms. At Shevington high, the group is for Years 7 to 10, and meets once a week, for a double period of 100 minutes; past and present members also have a weekly lunch.
As in the primary nurture groups, the sessions are run by two caring, reliable adults - one teaching assistant and one teacher - who model co-operation between each other to children who may rarely see adults co-operating. The group's activities are designed to build confidence and social skills, and can be tailored to work on the issues of the children at the time. Crucially, children also get the opportunity to talk about themselves and what is going on in their lives.
The behaviour support team (BST) contributed pound;3,000 for the renovation of a spare room in the school. An essential part of the nurture group ethos is that it takes place in a home-like space, with carpets, curtains, a kitchen and a large table they can all sit round. The BST trains and supports the group. The school contributed staff time and a minimal annual budget of pound;800 for the Diamond lunches, "emotional games" and other resources.
For head of lower school Lynn Douglas, the nurture group has been a breakthrough in helping vulnerable students. Three years ago, with special education needs co-ordinator Cathy Gaunt, she identified a group of Year 7 children who needed "TLC". "The things hampering their learning and achievement were poor social skills," she says. They decided to try a nurture group.
Initially, the focus was on secondary transfer. Staff at the school would visit their main feeder primaries and make "Boxall" profiles of a number of children, the method named after educational psychologist Marjorie Boxall for identifying children who might benefit from nurture groups. These children were brought together as a Diamond group before they joined the school; by autumn half-term, many had already felt the benefit while others might emerge as needing help.
Three years later, the nurture group is strongly established in Shevington high's school culture and has developed further, helping both children who are withdrawn and those who are acting out, proving useful as longer term support for some and a short term boost to others. "As the model has grown, the process has become applicable to many," says Lynn Douglas. "Nurture time is top of the list, because settled, confident young people learn best. It is at the heart of inclusion."
All Shevington staff are brought in on nurturing. Each child's targets are shown to all teachers, and reviewed regularly. Teachers are given ideas about how they can support the targets - ensuring eye contact, greeting children, lending equipment - and children know what they are working towards. This process is helped at Shevington by the school's unusual pastoral software, called Pastoral Manager. Developed in-house, it tracks children's pastoral lives as closely as other programs track academic achievement, and is updated daily. Progress is monitored and feedback shows that nurturing works, says Lynn Douglas. The group has the backing of headteacher Helen Mackenzie and the senior management team. It was, Lynn Douglas admits, launched to sighs from teachers sceptical about another initiative. Now staff refer students for nurture, having seen its results.
At Shevington high, there is no stigma attached to the Diamond group. "It has been one of my greatest professional surprises," says Lynn Douglas.
"Young people love to be called a Diamond and are happy two years on still to be called a Diamond." She attributes this to the place of the group within school culture. All forms are named after precious and semi-precious stones, eg Year 7 groups are named after the letters in "pearl"; 7p, 7e, 7a, and so on. Diamonds, says Cathy Gaunt, are the "most precious". This seems to be backed up by the Diamond lunch, well attended by past and present Diamond members, and some of their friends. There are also adult guests: the school nurse, community policeman and Connexions worker. Over tuna sandwiches and fairy cakes, 12-year-old Jamie tells headteacher Helen Mackenzie that he does not believe the Pope is any different from the rest of us. "The interesting thing is," says the head, "how we put that into practice in school, if we think that everyone is equal."
Other topics of conversations include the health of one student's dog, costumes for a fancy-dress party and recent football matches. With 30 adults and mixed-age children around two long tables, it feels more like a family party than a mid-term school lunch. Children in the group have a range of issues to deal with. Some are in care, some have disabilities, some lack self-esteem or have been bullied. Some are gifted and talented, some disruptive in class; several have had short term or, in some cases, longer term exclusions. "I think we have hit on a better way of managing behaviour," says Lynn Douglas.
Ofsted, after inspecting Shevington high last October, described the nurture group as an example of outstanding practice and "something special in the life of the school". Wigan education authority has won a grant from the Innovations Unit at the DfES to offer training in how to run such groups. Staff at Shevington are so delighted with the results of their three-year pilot that they are going to set up a full-time nurture group from next autumn. "I was in a lot of trouble and it has helped me enormously," says Natasha. "The teachers have been really supportive. They try to do the best for me at all times."
Children's names throughout this report have been changed