Everything in the garden is rosier

28th October 2005 at 01:00
While some primary age children are ready to stride into school, others lack the confidence to mix well. The value of nurture classes is in bringing on the personal and social development of pupils in a friendly, less formal setting where staff have more time for individuals, writes Elizabeth Buie

The Cottage Gardeners at Burnbrae Primary, in Glasgow, have breakfast together every day at around 9.30am. The children follow certain rules, always washing their hands before they eat, tucking napkins over their laps, chatting and sitting politely, observing the niceties of a sociable meal around a table.

For their teacher, Fiona Gilchrist, and support assistant, Laura Norval, it is the most important part of the school day. For the children, too, it is the highlight of their time in the Cottage Garden, the name chosen for their room, home to the school's nurture class.

Afterwards, they tidy up together, the children helping the adults, and then brush their teeth.

Next, they move to the Feelings Tree, where the group - currently seven, but rarely more than eight - hang either a happy or a sad face on a branch and talk about themselves. The idea is to encourage the children to think about and express their feelings and develop the ability to be supportive of each other. Through time, it allows the group to build trust in each other.

On this particular day, F (who was selected for the Cottage Garden because she was so shy and hesitant when she entered P1) says she is sad.

"Why?" asks Mrs Gilchrist.

"Because my Mum's not buying me skates," says F.

"Maybe that's because Mum can't afford them just now. Is it your birthday soon? Maybe Mum will wait till it's your birthday," says Mrs Gilchrist.

She turns to the others. "What could we do to help F feel happy?"

Another little girl says: "If we all play with her outside."

Then two boys join in. They'll play with F too at playtime.

F brightens visibly and hangs a happy face on the tree.

During playtime, Miss Norval stays close to the children in the playground to offer them support. After the break, they will do some maths, perhaps, or some language work. They follow the same 5-14 curriculum as other pupils but the methodologies may be slightly different, with more learning through games or play and more individual attention.

If the rest of their base class is doing music, drama, art, physical education or even some environmental studies work, the nurture class pupils join them. Never is the link with the base class lost. They start the day with them, invite friends from their base class into the Cottage Garden for golden time on Friday afternoons, and sometimes the rest of their base class will come along for a specific lesson, on phonics, for instance. This is important, says Caroline Darroch, Burnbrae Primary's headteacher, because it ensures there is no stigma attached to the Cottage Garden.

Former Gardeners are invited for breakfast from time to time as guests. The links remain close: former Gardeners who are now in P5 or P6 still turn to Mrs Gilchrist with a problem on occasions.

The group is an example of early intervention in action, in not only language skills and maths but most importantly in the social, personal and developmental needs of young pupils. An essential ingredient in the programme is the support of parents and the close relationship between parents and teacher, reporting progress to each other at regular meetings.

One of the main differences between teaching in the nurture class and the base class is that, because it is a smaller group and there are two adults, the teacher can adapt and move on to something else when she sees a child becoming frustrated or distracted, says Mrs Darroch. "It offers more flexibility than a class of 25 or 30 with one adult.

"The small group with two adults also allows more opportunity to focus on the personal and social development things that perhaps the children would not have been able to do otherwise."

Mrs Gilchrist explains: "In a classroom situation you have a timetable, more or less, that you have to stick to. In a nurture group you can be flexible. We are meeting the children's needs as we see them."

In a normal classroom, when a child displays unacceptable behaviour, the teacher's usual response would be to say: "Don't do that. Sit down." In a nurture class there is more time to spend with that child, to listen to them.

"Children come to school at different stages of development," says Mrs Gilchrist. "Some are not ready to sit in a classroom setting, some lack confidence, some are just emotionally immature, some find it very difficult to sit for long because of the stage of development they are at."

She describes one child who was not much more emotionally developed than a toddler. All he wanted to do was sit on the teacher's lap and be cuddled, and he tended to shout out like a toddler.

Another child would walk out of the room whenever he got upset and Mrs Gilchrist would have to go after him and bring him back.

"Yesterday, he walked over to a corner instead. That was a success because it shows he feels safe in here," she says.

Another child arrived in the nurture class with speech development problems. He has now returned full time to his base class and recently won the P2 class poetry-speaking prize.

Although nurture groups were pioneered in 1969 by the late Marjorie Boxall, an educational psychologist based in the east London borough of Hackney, and have been adopted across much of England, they are still relatively rare in Scotland. The first was set up in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, but Glasgow City Council has been at the forefront of developing and expanding the early intervention initiative.

Five nurture groups were set up in 2001 and a further 12 the year after in a two-year pilot. In 2004, the initiative was extended to include 29 schools - one per learning community - and this year, a further 29 are being funded across the city.

In those 58 schools, specialist four-day training, which focuses on the evaluation and observation of young children, is given to the school managers, teachers and support assistants. In addition, the nurture class teachers have set up their own informal network and a couple of times a term they meet after school to share ideas and good practice.

The Boxall profile questionnaire helps teachers to identify children who would benefit from spending time in a nurture group. Teachers ask themselves questions about the children, such as: Can they concentrate? Do they express their feelings? Are they shy? Do they cry? Do they seem happy in school? How are they relating with other children and with the teachers? Are they violent towards other children or aggressive verbally towards teachers? Do they sulk when they don't get their way?

The evaluations tend to be done in P1, when some children have difficulties settling into a school routine, whether for emotional, social or behavioural development reasons. However, some may not need nurturing intervention until they are in P2 or later.

Increasingly, older children are being included in nurture groups, usually for shorter periods of time than P1 and P2 youngsters. The most recent report on nurture classes, by Margaret Orr, the head of special educational needs at Glasgow, shows 80 per cent of pupils in nurture classes are in P1-P3, but 20 per cent are in P4-P7.

At Burnbrae Primary, Mrs Darroch has introduced a P6 girl and a P7 boy to the Cottage Garden for nurturing. The girl had been showing behavioural problems, related to low self-esteem, at the end of last term. "She had all the symptoms of being a bully because she was so insecure in herself," says Mrs Darroch.

Spending two days a week in the Cottage Garden, in the calm, nurturing care of Mrs Gilchrist, has raised her confidence and allowed her to see herself as a great help to the younger children.

"She's fantastic with the wee ones," says Mrs Gilchrist. "She's already like a different child."

Mrs Gilchrist, who was a senior teacher before taking the nurture class, has more than 20 years of experience and has taught all stages of primary.

She describes this as the most satisfying work she has ever done.


Boxall profile data was analysed for 13 of the initial 17 schools in Glasgow to start nurture classes.

* Of 108 children considered, only eight did not significantly change their behaviour, entirely or in part.

* After six months, in two similar schools used as a control, there was no significant change in the behaviour of the children.

Fifteen schools provided before and after scores for 133 children, using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (a standard behavioural screening used by researchers, clinicians and educationists). Both control schools did the same.

* 110 out of 133 children in the nurture groups improved their SDQ scores significantly.

* After six months, in neither control school had significant change taken place in the behaviour of the children, as measured by the SDQ.

* Two of the five schools involved in the first phase of the pilot study reported better 5-14 assessment results;

* The majority of nurture classes reported improved attendance and arrival.

* Parents were universally positive about the nurture classes and the difference they had made.

A class teacher in a nurture class school commented:

* "The remaining children had more of my time;

* their progress was greater in all areas;

* the teaching was uninterrupted;

* the class was less disruptive;

* the children did not feel anger towards the disruptive children as in previous years, when they felt they had often spoiled times for them;

* when the group was integrated, the children accepted them as part of the class due to their improved behaviour;

* the other children's behaviour also improved, as they wanted to help the nurture class children by showing them what to do and how to act in various situations;

* they even felt protective towards the nurture class and would try to defuse situations to help them cope;

* it was less stressful for myself; and

* it was more rewarding to myself, as I could see the nurture class children were happier and more open to learning."

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