A place where nurture is second nature

5th October 2012 at 01:00
For the senior students who attend Broxburn Academy's Nurture Base, it has become `a second home' and enabled them to turn their education and lives around, writes Raymond Ross

When the school bell rings at the end of a Friday, pupils tend to rush out towards their weekend and whatever freedoms it may offer. But for S34 pupils attending the senior nurture group at Broxburn Academy in West Lothian, this is not always the case.

These are youngsters who, in a traditional classroom setting, might be deemed "disruptive" and often have additional learning needs. With a history of low attendance andor school exclusions behind them, they might seem the least likely to want to hang about after the bell goes; and yet they do because, in their own words, they regard the Nurture Base in which they are mainly taught as "a second home" or "a home from home".

Nurture groups, offering focused intervention to address barriers to learning that arise from social, emotional or behavioural difficulties in an inclusive and supportive manner, are more common in primaries or lower secondary. Broxburn Academy, however, has extended the idea to senior pupils with encouraging results.

In an educational psychology service report in June 2012, a year after the group was set up, it is noted that seven of the nurture group pupils had gained 11 qualifications, which far exceeded the five that they aimed for.

The report also notes improved behaviour in pupils, better manners, no exclusions while attending the group, increased school attendance (in one case from 22 to 79 per cent), increased confidence, better peer support within the group and pupils following the rules as a norm rather than an exception.

"This is an example of making the curriculum fit the needs of the pupils rather than the other way round and I think what is maybe unique in what we do is delivering the whole curriculum to our nurture group as a group," says headteacher Peter Reid.

Central to the philosophy and success of the group is the Nurture Base itself, which the pupils helped to plan and which they have "taken ownership" of.

Arriving in the base shortly after 9am, you encounter six pupils at breakfast (which they make themselves), discussing what's in the newspapers brought to them by the school librarian every morning.

With a large kitchen area, a table and chairs for dining and for schoolwork, and a "chill out" area with large sofas and cushions for relaxation periods between classes, the base certainly has a "homely" atmosphere.

With a nudge and a wink from Cheryl Stirling, the pupil support worker who, in effect, runs the base, S4 pupil Regan steps up from his breakfast and offers tea or coffee. It's then, as you sit on one of the sofas, that you notice coffee tables laden with scones, cakes, truffles and eclairs.

"We make all of these ourselves," says Regan. "Help yourself."

It transpires that all of the group, presently five boys and one girl, love cooking.

"We make soups, macaroni, nachos," says another pupil, Blake.

"We make cakes like these for coffee mornings for visitors and to raise money for the base. We make rather than buy. It's like our home here, our second home. We even do the cleaning and the washing up," he says with a grin.

That the pupils have `bought into' the group soon becomes apparent. "If we're having a problem at home or in school we try to help each other," says Regan.

"I used to be bad and annoy the teachers. I've grown up in here, helping and working hard and behaving. You get more work done here and you can learn without even thinking about it," he says.

"In the big classrooms I used to carry on a lot, hiding that I couldn't do the work," says Blake. "But with the teachers coming in here to teach and us being a wee group, you feel you can ask for help. And you get it. Cheryl's like a second mum to me. She's always here for us," he says.

As we talk about the group and the work they do, another pupil, Aron, decides to tell his story. "My mum died two years ago and it was hard. I was always getting excluded until I started to come here," he says.

"People here care. Last year I was supposed to do Access 3 English but with an extra push I got my Standard grade, a General pass. It's better here. I struggle in bigger classes. Without this group I probably wouldn't be at school."

That the nurture pupils "are coming on leaps and bounds", as Robin Thomson, PT curriculum for additional support needs, puts it, seems apparent from their conversation and attitude.

"These were pupils who were not accessing the curriculum properly but now can to the same degree as any other senior pupil," he says.

"As well as increased curriculum achievement, they have better social and communication skills and show increased confidence. We address their literacy and numeracy needs through teachers, for the most part, coming into the base and they can also access work opportunities like any other S4 pupils," he says.

English teacher Vikki Bridgewood also attests to the success of the scheme. "I think it's working really well. The pupils can access information and respond more appropriately here than in a bigger class.

"They feel a sense of belonging and know that the staff will modify lessons for them so they can give back more - which they do. But when you teach here, your approach is - has to be - more informal and casual," she says.

The psychology report highlights this "consistency of approach" among staff, detailing how they "come down to the pupils' level in a relaxed environment", how they connect with the pupils and treat them like individuals and how they visit the Nurture Base during non-teaching time for a shared lunch or a coffee and a chat. "Unflinching dedication and support," the report calls it.

Central to this ethos and to its success is the role of pupil support worker Cheryl Stirling. "The pupils have to get to know me first and I'm the first port of call if they are having problems or experiencing difficulties. What I try to create here, first and foremost, is a family environment.

"You have to create this so that the pupils will be open with you, which they tend to be. We start the day with discussions which might bring up family issues and lead into questions such as: `Is there such a thing as a `normal' family?'

"We have to develop `family skills' for their own future lives and to give the kind of day-to-day support that maybe we ourselves take for granted," she says.

She gives the example of how last year she discovered that some of the pupils would not be having a traditional family Christmas dinner. It was just something that didn't happen in their lives.

So Mrs Stirling proposed they have a Christmas dinner themselves in the Nurture Base and before she could say anything further, one boy responded: "I can't believe it! You're going to come in and spend Christmas Day with us!"

The proposal, of course, was that they have their Christmas dinner together before the end of term - but it exposed a level of need which she had to try to address.

"It underlined the fact that this is not a behavioural unit. It's about young people who need TLC," she says.

Mrs Stirling also accompanies the pupils one day a week to nearby Oatridge Agricultural College, where they are studying rural skills and have their own vegetable plot.

"Last year we won gold for our palate garden, a small landscaped garden, at the Scottish Gardening Show at Ingliston. These are pupils who are showing they have life and employability skills," she says.

"I love my work here and it is rewarding. But it's not easy. It's hard. But I believe we can make a difference and that's something we all believe in and try for.

"There are a lot of pupils who go under the radar and I think there's probably a need for this kind of group in just about every secondary school."


Wendy McComb, biology teacher, Broxburn Academy, says:

I'm one of the few teachers that the pupils come to, rather than me teaching in the base. They have to come to the biology lab because a lot of what we do is practical.

The group is excellent to teach and I've had no problems at all. The pupils like coming to the lab because, as a small group, they get to do the experiments themselves on an individual basis.

They have a much more positive attitude than when they were in a bigger class and their timekeeping and attendance is good.

I think they enjoy school more and value the work they are given. They know they're getting extra help and are much more appreciative as a result.

Within the first two weeks of term they realised that they were being supported, but that they were not being marked out as `different' from their peers.

I go up to the base on non-teaching periods or for lunch and help with baking cakes or whatever they might be doing. That's part of the `nurture' and it's good for them to see staff in a different light.

I think we were all unsure at the start how the initiative would work but because the nurture is there, they know the staff care about them and they react positively to that.

These were potentially tricky pupils who are now motivated but would still be lost in a class of 20.

We follow Access 3 Biology, so they access the same course others of their peers might be following, but they now ask questions they wouldn't in a bigger class. They are buying into the lessons.

As a group they have matured a lot and some do have the potential to go on to FE. They work hard and as a teacher it's your job to keep them motivated and busy.

They're a fine bunch to teach.

Photo credit: Colin Hattersley

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