Glasgow's approach to Government education policy

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Scotland's largest education authority explains why it continues to invest in nurture classes

Original paper headline: Why Glasgow drove a coach and horses through Government education policy

Cutting p1-3 classes to 18 will not address the impact of a dysfunctional family background on young children - Glasgow needs to do something more drastic, says the city council.

Many children in the city are living in chaotic circumstances with drug or alcohol-addicted parents who are failing to care for them adequately, show interest in their progress or protect them from harm, says the city's principal educational psychologist, Sue Reynolds. These children arrive at school ill-prepared and struggle immediately. Usually they survive primary but fail miserably by secondary, she adds.

In the 1940s and 1950s, children from poor backgrounds used education to escape the poverty trap. They came from deprived areas like the Gorbals but had the support of functioning families and strong communities. These were not the families she was talking about now, Ms Reynolds stressed.

"The children we are looking at are exposed to motivationally-poor backgrounds. These are the families which have given up," she told delegates at a nurture groups conference, hosted by the Nurture Group Network, in Stirling last week.

The children also had to cope with an inordinate amount of bereavement and loss - problems which Ms Reynolds described as "rife" in Glasgow. "There is hardly a school that does not have a story about some trauma which has affected it," she said.

There was the Glasgow school where the janitor committed suicide in the basement; others in the city were weighed down by memories of murdered pupils.

In June 2004, Royston Primary pupil Mark Cummings, aged eight, was murdered by convicted paedophile Stuart Leggate. Four years later, another pupil, six-year-old Paul Ross, was stabbed to death by his father.

"We have to look and see where we can intervene," Ms Reynolds continued. "The nurture groups strategy is based on psychological principles and we believe they build resilience. Let's put our money where our mouth is."

Glasgow City Council has done just that. Last week, the authority, responsible for Britain's largest study into the impact of nurture groups, announced it would be increasing the number of nurture classes from 57 to 68 instead of reducing class sizes to 18 in P1-3.

City treasurer Gordon Matheson acknowledged the move would not find favour with Edinburgh ministers but it would, he argued, meet the needs of the population.

Glasgow was not always so convinced nurture groups were the answer. In 2003, council officials were ready to scrap them, part of the way through the pilot scheme. But the then education convener, Steven Purcell, now council leader, overruled them.

Teachers celebrated. They said nurture groups were a "phenomenal" success.

The public will be able to judge for itself when a feature-length documentary about the Glasgow groups is shown on television in the autumn. The film, The Nurture Room, was made in partnership with the Nurture Group Network, Scottish Screen and Channel 4, and shot by the makers of last year's Dispatches film for Channel 4, Britain's Challenging Children. It follows children attending nurture classes at three Glasgow primaries - Wellshot, Royston and St Clare's.

When Jason, one of the film's stars, arrived at Wellshot Primary in Glasgow's Tollcross, two schools had already failed to cope with his behaviour and he was on the waiting list for a residential placement in a school for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Jason should have been entering P5 but he had only been educated to P3- level, having repeated both nursery and P1.

When the viewer first meets Jason, whose mother is a recovering alcoholic, he is in the nurture room falling around, pretending to be drunk. Playing at the sand tray he buries dolls, pretending they are dead; in another game, he locks up toys in an imaginary prison. He is also shown out of control, kicking and punching a sofa.

This behaviour was the "tip of the iceberg", says headteacher Jennifer McCluskey, who would not allow his worst excesses to be recorded. However, after an intensive period in the nurture room, Jason was integrated into the mainstream class, without having to go to a residential school. This is his third year at Wellshot.

An interview with him would have been impossible when filming started, filmmaker Matt Pinder told the conference. But by the end of the documentary, Jason is able to take Matt on a guided tour of the school and demonstrates he is nothing short of transformed.

In the school's quiet room, Jason explains to Matt that if you feel frightened you can hold the cuddly toys. He has a favourite teddy: "I like its skin," he says, stroking its fur.

But Jason doesn't go in the quiet room much any more, he tells Matt. "I am good now," he says.

There has been a nurture room at Wellshot Primary, where half the pupils are entitled to free school meals, for around eight years.

Initially, Ms McCluskey was alarmed by some of the play in the room, which caters for eight pupils with a range of different needs.

"Poor teddy has been baked, boiled, microwaved and stabbed," said Ms McCluskey, who also addressed the Nurture Group Network conference. "But, in a safe environment, the children have to be allowed to do that. Over the months, play becomes much more appropriate."

Jason still gets into scrapes at school, but he can accept responsibility, reason with you and make eye contact, she added.

The challenging children, however, keep coming. This year's P1 at Wellshot is the worst Ms McCluskey has seen, and there is no room for all of them in the nurture group - some are on a waiting list.

Another challenge for the school is the widespread use of cocaine in the local community - "a relatively new problem". There are fights after school involving parents, and the next day, staff have to deal with the aftermath.

"I don't know what we did without the nurture class," Ms McCluskey said. "It is a vital means of looking beyond the behaviour of the child to find out: `Why is this child behaving like that and what can we do about it?' It is not an exaggeration to say it changes lives."

Nurture groups are not a panacea, but they work, argued Ms Reynolds. They could have a place in secondary and pre-school. But, in general, schools need to become more nurturing places, she said.

Ms McCluskey agreed: "You can't get children used to a nurturing ethos and then send them back out into a class where teachers are shouting and screaming."

To this end, Glasgow City Council has developed a tool, based on the inspectorate's How Good Is Our School? series, called How Nurturing Is Our School?.

Ms Reynolds was also keen to target parents but questioned whether the council would be able to reach those who needed help most.

Parenting classes had been offered to those with children at a school for youngsters with social, emotional and behavioural problems, she reported. Staff made home visits, offered free transport and a free lunch. Two parents turned up.

What is a nurture group?

A nurture group is a small class of eight to 10 children. They spend a substantial part of each week in the group but remain part of their mainstream class. Each group has two specially-trained staff members, a teacher and an assistant. Their task is to model courteous and supportive behaviour while making the children feel accepted and valued. There is a great emphasis on communication and the group eat breakfast together. More than 80 per cent are ready, after less than three school terms, to return to their mainstream class.

Nurture evaluated

Glasgow City Council educational psychologists have carried out the biggest evaluation of nurture groups in Britain to date.

Research published in 2007 showed that children from nurture groups improved significantly in the areas of:


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