Feature - Confidence is given a chance

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Pupils to learn social skills and how to deal with life's uncertainties

A nurture group has been set up in a secondary school in Motherwell - almost unheard of in Scotland - and its pupils are learning social skills and how to deal with life's uncertainties

John Brown bounds across the room. He slaps another "star pupil" sticker against the wall and surveys his classmates' tallies. "See, I'm taking the lead already - watch me fly."

John is in a nurture group at Motherwell's Braidhurst High, supposedly populated by children lacking in confidence. Not that the 13-year-old appears short of self-belief. One minute he is rattling off an extempore history of how Roman emperor Claudius's tyranny inadvertently led to St Valentine's Day ("He banned people getting married. This man St Valentine, he thingmied . he made a stand. He married people against his will and because he found out he chopped St Valentine's head off".) The next, he is whizzing word-perfectly through "Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket", a Scots poem he learned for the anniversary of Robert Burns's birth.

While nurture groups have become increasingly familiar in Scotland, it is almost unknown for them to be set up in secondary schools. The groups provide safe havens for pupils to learn social skills which, for various reasons, they have not picked up when younger.

The demands of the secondary curriculum often preclude any scheme which takes pupils away from mainstream lessons for hours at a time. It is a brave step, therefore, for Braidhurst to have decided that, from last September, 13 pupils in S1 would go into one of two nurture groups, which meet for two hours each Monday and Friday in a specially-adapted room where the usual lessons are off the agenda.

Such is the commitment that the trial project - which also involves Taylor High - has been funded at Braidhurst from the school budget: pound;10,000 to convert the room, and pound;16,000 for two days a week for a teacher and a learning assistant.

The school is in an area of high deprivation and some children find it difficult to get through everyday social situations; not everyone is "flying" like John. Liz Neilson, an English and learning support teacher who, this year, is also the nurture groups' teacher, shows off the piles of games in a store cupboard. They have been donated for pupils to learn about co-operation, but many are unusable because some cannot read.

She points to one game which has been used, but not always liked. "Gonna Get Yer" is a simple procession of counters around a board, but players frequently suffer the frustration of being sent back the way they came. One boy could not deal with this the first time he played, and gave up immediately. The next time, he suffered the indignity of falling back four times before he threw in the towel. Now, with practice, he doesn't give up so easily.

"They find chance very hard to cope with," Mrs Neilson says. "They would much rather cope with certainties. But life's not like that. You've got to learn to deal with what comes along."

The children all need their self-esteem boosted, but there are many reasons for their fragile confidence and its manifestations. Some are quiet, others boisterous. One boy cannot understand that his actions might have an effect on other people, that he might upset them. One girl is a refugee who has "lost everything" and is "having to reinvent herself". Another child makes it clear to The TESS photographer that under no circumstances does he want his picture in the newspaper.

The L-shaped room is bright and spacious, and known as The Hub. A switched-off computer to one side looks like an afterthought - a conscious effort has been made to counterbalance the ubiquity of computer and TV screens in children's homes, explains headteacher Derek Hannan. There is a table for meals and discussion and, round the corner, comfy seats, furry cushions and cuddly toys, including a highly popular dog, Spike.

"You would think boys of 12 or 13 wouldn't be the least interested in a furry dog, but they are - it's comforting," Mrs Neilson says.

The table is the centre point of the room, a place for civilised chat where everyone is expected to join in and listen courteously. "We always start with a discussion," she says. "It can be anything - what they're doing at the weekend or what's been happening in school this week. That's something a lot of them are not good at. To begin with, sitting around a table was something most of them didn't have much experience of."

The TESS arrives as one group is gathered round the table, and learns that it is John's 13th birthday. Ewan McCallum, 12, explains you have to pay a compliment to someone in the group: "John got most, because it's his birthday, but we all got some and we have to take them home and tell them to our mothers."

Mrs Neilson works alongside learning assistant Jayne Jeffrey. It's important not to throw together staff at random, says Mr Hannan: "Fundamentally, we're trying to create a nice, family atmosphere, where an essential component is two adults who get on well with each other."

It is also pragmatic as "kids could play one adult off against the other" if they didn't get along.

"My sons say I'm a professional mother now, but in a sense, that's what we're doing - it's an extra mothering experience," says Mrs Neilson; The Hub should feel far removed from a classroom, and recreate "the same sort of atmosphere as with your children in your kitchen".

It is 10.30am and John and his pals are tucking into a birthday chocolate log. Healthy eating is not off the agenda - a past apple-dooking session succeeded in making fruit more palatable - but there are more important things to worry about in the nurture groups, and getting them to eat anything around the table is a step in the right direction. "The first priority is to get them comfortable," Mrs Neilson says.

The girls at The Hub are relishing their time here, largely because the teachers are so nice, says Mwawita De Gaulle: "I like this. When I came in here with my hair extensions, the teacher said, `I like your hair.'"

Christie Gowans likes it because "it's fun, you get to play games and hang about with your friends".

Shannon Beattie enjoys visitors coming in to see how she, Christie and Mwawita are getting on: "We show them how well we can behave and how badly the boys can behave."

She might be referring to the boy who has just karate-kicked some Jenga- like building game and sent the blocks flying. Two other boys are seemingly embroiled in a contest to see who is best at administering dead arms; Mrs Neilson and Mrs Jeffrey deal with this firmly but without raising their voices or making a scene. Meanwhile, another boy reveals that not everyone is as delighted as the girls to be here, complaining that he is missing preparation time for a French test.

The big picture, however, is one of good progress: in a few months, behaviour and attendance have improved and none of the children has been excluded. The big difference, Mrs Neilson says, is in social skills: "It's worked in the sense that they are much more confident and much better at expressing their ideas."

The children were "lovely", she says, when they held two Scottish-themed lunches to which teachers were invited: "They see their teachers in a different light and the teacher sees them differently - they've only seen them for the most part as the underachievers in class."

No stigma is attached to The Hub, according to Mrs Neilson and Mr Hannan. In fact, other children have been asking how they can get in, because it's so attractive.

Mr Hannan is keen for the room not to lie empty for three days a week, and sees no reason why it could not be used for all ages of pupils and for various reasons. It could be appropriate for S3-4 social and vocational skills classes, and provide short-term support for pupils who have suffered a bereavement.

Pupils should see it as a place they are passing through, rather than a destination, he says. He does not want to force a child there for an entire year, when he or she could be ready to return to mainstream classes sooner. Each child's circumstances should be carefully monitored.

Nurture groups should give children tools to "go out there and get on with it", says Mrs Neilson. They must not insulate them from the real world without preparing them for it. "It's like any family - you don't want your child to be with you forever."


The UK capital of secondary nurture groups is Wigan, where they exist in all but two of its 28 secondaries. The north England town is well advanced in its long-term aim for entire schools to adopt the nurturing philosophy.

Beauty classes were arranged at one school for bullied girls who did not dress well and had poor hygiene. The improvement in self-esteem was marked and the classes were made available in the mainstream timetable.

At another school, which had been struggling, the headteacher gave nurture groups credit for turning its fortunes around, recalls Irene Grant, assistant director in Scotland for the Nurture Group Network.

There has been limited interest from Scottish secondaries. In Glasgow, Bannerman High and Springburn Academy used the model, but Spring-burn focused on learning difficulties, rather than social, emotional and behavioural ones. It did not rely on Boxall profiles, employed to identify suitable participants.

East Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and West Lothian councils have shown varying degrees of interest in secondary nurture groups.

Yet neuroscientists' research suggests the teenage years are a good time to work on parts of the brain which are underdeveloped in children who have grown up amid mental health issues, postnatal depression, or alcohol and drug misuse, says Mrs Grant: "It tends to be that you can turn these children round quicker."

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