Introducing "nurture groups" in West Lothian secondaries has led to dramatic behaviour improvements and a reduction in exclusions, a study has found.
Nurture groups, where students spend part of the week learning social skills, are usually used for younger children. In 2012-13, however, West Lothian started a two-year trial for P5-S2 students across 35 schools. Their groups typically involve up to 10 students and two staff in a room furnished with comfortable chairs, games and toys.
In their report on the groups, West Lothian's depute principal educational psychologist Lynne Binnie and research assistant Tracey Ross state: "The vast majority of the teachers felt that the nurture group had been effective overall and had made a significant impact in the lives of most of the school pupils."
And an update on the research, revealed at an event last month at Inveralmond Community High School in Livingston, found that the students in the trial were making more friends and were more likely to see the point of school, as they felt secure and supported. "The staff make us feel good about ourselves," one student said. Another said they were "like family to us".
School leaders said children in nurture groups had better relationships with staff, behaved better in mainstream classes and were less likely to be excluded. One student went from 20 per cent attendance to 85 per cent. "I wouldn't be in school if I didn't have the nurture group," a student told researchers.
But it is unclear whether this has been matched by significant academic benefits, and some parents remain unconvinced that children should be removed from mainstream classes.
School staff generally observed "only a little progress academically", according to the researchers, although they felt that students were approaching work more enthusiastically and that academic progress could be a longer-term benefit.
One staff member suggested that focusing on academic success missed the point that nurture groups brought out "the gifts [students] are given" and chimed with "my personal belief that people should not be judged by their academic progress".
There was "significant improvement" in behaviour and confidence beyond school, according to the report. "I can't believe the difference in my son at home," one parent said. "He talks to me now." Parents' views were mixed, however, with some stating that their child's difficulties applied only to school.
The aim is for students to return fully to mainstream classes after between two and four terms. But some parents felt strongly that their child lost out academically by spending so much time away from lessons. Most schools felt that parental involvement was "definitely" an area to improve.
"I would rather the school spent the time and money keeping the kids in class learning rather than sitting in a room skiving," one parent said. "I think the money could be put to a better use buying books and jotters rather than a couch and pillows and feeling games. Where is that going to get them in life outside in the working world?"
Other parents felt that, even though the groups were beneficial, there were downsides to taking children away from their peers as they could "feel like the bad ones" or be teased.
Misconceptions among staff not directly involved in the groups were another barrier to success. There were also concerns that students in general did not fully understand their purpose.
Chris Grant, membership officer for the UK-wide Nurture Group Network, said that secondary nurture groups, although still a small minority, had become more common in Scotland in recent years. Research into groups for older students was at an early stage, he added, but anecdotal signs were encouraging.
The first nurture groups were established in 1969 in London as a response to the large numbers of children being referred to psychological services with severe social, emotional and behavioural problems. There are more than 1,000 in the UK.