Calm and conversation

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark visits a school where time out in small supportive group sessions is helping pupils cope with school life

Breakfast is social order. Without the security of social order, the children can't learn," says Jim Parker, looking round the boys' faces, beaming round jaws chomping on pieces of toast. As six boys pass toast, divide up fruit, make each other hot drinks and clear away, you might think this was just a nice bit of fun, the jam on the toast. But no.

Jim Parker is not just running a breakfast club at Blake High School in Cannock: these boys from Year 7 are difficult, trouble, on half-timetables, already with fixed-term exclusions. They are children who can "just blow up". Finding it hard to adjust to secondary school, they had already had problems at primary school, and earlier. They are the "long tail", the ones who pull down the A*-C grades, the SEBD (social emotional behavioural difficulties) kids, the ones "wagging it" because school is "boring, can't do it", the "15 per cent" who "have bad backgrounds". They are children who need nurturing and in the STEPS project in Cannock they are being nurtured.

Jim Parker and Glynis Littlewood lead Blake's nurture groups. Groups of not more than 10 or 12 pupils having difficulties in school attend the group for a Wednesday morning session, which includes the breakfast. They may also drop back in to see the adults if they need to during the day. Sometimes Jim Parker - "Mr P" - or Mrs Littlewood calls in on a class to visit a pupil. And at the end of the day group members can have a last meeting with them. The programme goes on for two or three terms until the pupil is coping better, or longer if the pupil needs it.

Around the table this morning are Glen, Jamie, Kevin, Douglas, Christopher and Alan. Gavin is not here. He threw a wobbly over not being allowed chocolate before toast - or, more likely, over having revealed his primary school history of destructive behaviour and expulsions in the group session before break - and has gone off wandering round the school. "He probably will get into trouble," says Mrs Littlewood, "depending on who he meets, but we do show the boys that there are legitimate consequences."

Mr Parker adds: "It's not compulsory, there are no punishments in the nurture group. We can only encourage them to stay. But they do stay, they want to stay and their behaviour does improve."

For children who have been in trouble constantly for violent behaviour, from swearing to smashing up classrooms and savage fighting, the conversation at the table is unexpectedly polite. "Could you pass the sugar?" "How many sugars is it we can have, sir?" "Do you like peanut butter?" Like anyone's dad, Jim Parker cracks a few terrible jokes, "What's this? It's a plate" and like anyone's mum, Glynis Littlewood bustles about, getting Chris a "nice, proper cup of tea" when it turns out Glen had forgotten to put the teabag in. No teasing about this - Chris drank it manfully down - but you can feel the little glow when Mrs Littlewood puts the fresh cup down.

Yet all of this comes at a price. "Some people, pupils and teachers, might think that the nurture group is just about eating and missing lessons," says Jim Parker. "But actually, when we sit and talk they are working very hard."

Each Wednesday morning, as pupils come in, they settle down into a circle for "a talk". House rules (no putting down, no interrupting) are strictly kept to as they share all the ups and downs of the week. What happened, what the teacher said, what was a "hot spot" and made trouble, how a spiral developed and drew other people into it, what could have been done instead, how they could try to stop and think before reacting. What should Douglas have done when he found his pencil case was missing? That is, before lashing out at the boy he "knew" had taken it. For instance, did the other boy really steal the pencil case? Or had it been left behind on the radiator? When did he see it last?

As the atmosphere of trust grows in the room and "Mr P" and Mrs Littlewood listen and comment, a watcher can see the boys forging some kind of control over their feelings. Children whose backgrounds, for whatever reason, have given them the sense that events and feelings are chaotic, unknowable, and hostile, find, in calm conversation with concerned adults, that they do have the inner resources to cope - and to help others cope.

Gavin tells how the teacher had refused to have him in the French lesson because he kicked the door, then how he was disallowed from football, at which point he chose to go to the quiet room, but later had to go home to his parents. The boys listen intently and with sympathy. They think Gavin "done well" to choose to go to the quiet room. Jamie, who does not like lessons and does not like teachers, does like STEPS and has come back for a few weeks. He suggests that things blow up in French lessons because French is "horrible, I hate it, you can't hear anything and it doesn't make sense".

The nurture group, to work, has to go both ways. Without teacher commitment, pupil improvement can falter. Teachers also need to try to see the world from the pupils' point of view: how alien it can feel, and difficult, full of demands that are hard to gauge, with lessons they can hardly make sense of. Pupils may be of low ability. More likely, they lack the social skills and understanding to enable them to use their abilities. Some children have never sat down to a meal, never had a conversation with their parents, never been told they are good at something and known it was true. If they are preoccupied with private problems, they forget how to negotiate the public world of school. And they do not know how to ask for help without feeling even more stupid. First, they need to learn to feel socially at ease.

This is a process that the nurture group works on. There is a deep efficacy about shared eating and conversation. When the headteacher visited the "most terrible children in the school" on a birthday breakfast and tried the sausage sandwiches, she was "amazed" at the good manners. The day I visited there was no special treat, but great care was taken wiping the table and putting away the jams and spreads, accompanied by joking by Jim Parker: "Careful of that, it's the only suit I've got." As the morning wound down with a quick game of pool, Mr Parker signed off report forms: "I'll put, 'a good morning', shall I?" For three years, nurture groups in Cannock have been helping to make inclusion in education become more than a pious buzzword, with money from the Single Regeneration Budget, from school budgets and with bits of sponsorship and help in kind from local agencies amounting to nearly pound;500,000. Jim Parker says: "There's not a lot we can do about home, we're not social workers, but we do have children for 15,000 hours in their lives: we should be able to do something for them."

Sharon Peart, head of Year 7 at Blake High School says: "They need so much, these children, they are so insecure that being asked to conform to the lesson can just send them sky high. When you have 10 or 12 children like that in a class of 30, the teachers simply can't give each child the attention he or she desperately craves. That's why the nurture group can really help."

Nurture groups began in primary schools in Hackney in the early 1970s. Marjorie Boxall, an educational psychologist, noticed that many children referred for being disruptive in class seemed to have behaviour typical of much younger children. It seemed as if they simply had not had the nurturing necessary for them to move through each developmental stage. With the enthusiastic support of school staff, she developed strategies to help such children. Out of this grew the Boxall Profile, a set of criteria that the teacher scores to reveal the source of a child's troubled behaviour and suggest useful approaches. It was inclusion before its time. When inclusion became official policy, the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties campaigned to spread awareness of the success of early intervention. Now there are several hundred primary nurture groups in the UK.

Marjorie Boxall developed this model for primary children. Jim Parker is among a new wave of nurture group workers who have extended the notion to secondary pupils. With 30 years in special and arts education, including running residential and therapeutic establishments, he feels "as if I've been all around the world and finally found out how you ought to work with kids like these".

Auditing has shown a dramatic reduction in the children's disruptive behaviour, with children coming off reporting arrangements, improved attendance and better attainments.

Less quantifiable is the children's well-being. "I'd spend every day here, me," says Jamie.

"Teachers don't always listen," explains Kevin.

Headteacher Heather Bowman pinpoints factors of social deprivation in Cannock, with up to 60 per cent of pupils with learning difficulties and the second heaviest weighting of SEN in Staffordshire. Yet there is pressure to raise the "magic A*-Cs" from 22-25 per cent through the "ceiling of 30 per cent", she says. A new inclusion unit, "praise postcards" sent to pupils who do well, a Relate-run counselling course and the nurture groups project are all part of the school's drive to raise aspiration and achievement. Nurture groups are "definitely worthwhile", she says, but she can see no future funding for them after this summer, though Staffordshire has been running in-service training on nurture groups for most of its schools.

The "long tail" of underachievement persists then, with other children having difficulties like those experienced by Douglas and Jamie and Christopher, for whom simply remaining in the building is a struggle, let alone feeling good enough to get an education. Jim Parker says: "I think it's criminal if young people leave school unable to read, write and with no social skills. That's more important than league tables."


Rules for group discussion

No put-downs

No fun at the expense of other people

No interruptions

No punishment

Structure of groups

Two adults

Not more than 10 to 12 pupils, for three to four terms

Prepare, eat and clean away a meal together

Discuss life situations and listen to each other

Structured play together, creative activities

End by relaxing free play

Morning activities for key stage 3 pupils

Meet for activity

Group discussion - up to one hour

Break - can go with school or stay to help with:

Breakfast, which can take up to one hour, including wash hands; prepare,

eat and clear away breakfast; wash up.

Relaxing play, about 10 minutes

Final brief discussion

Support for pupils

Pupils typically on stages 23 of the SEN register

Parental permission sought for every pupil; parents continually informed, via letter and phone call as well as Progress review every half-term

Nurture group staff on call for in-class support for pupils

Staff available for guidance before, during and after school

Withdrawal of pupil from lessons if needed, by special learning support assistant

Encounter group session weekly focuses on pupils assessing and reviewing their own progress, sometimes using school's review sheets, behaviour contracts, etc

"Surety not severity": staff follow up every incident in pupil's schooling Regular discussions with class teachers and school management team

Breakfast crucial : "part of their fabric of support, it reassures them of their worth and contributes to a sense of comfort and well-being" (Marion Bennathan 1996)

STEPS project and INSET: Jim Parker, Nurture Group co-ordinator, Blake High School, Marston Road, Hednesford, Cannock, Staffs WS12 4JH. Tel: 01543 512415.

Nurture Group Network (Director: Marion Bennathan): 24 Murray Mews, London NW1 9RJ. Tel:fax: 020 7485 2025.


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