Toast and jam for breakfast, cuddles with Smokey the rabbit, and a lot of love and attention. It all adds up to a lifeline for children with emotional and behavioural problems. Wendy Wallace visits the Rainbow class, a 'nurture group' which fosters learning In a sun-filled classroom at Brettenham Primary School in Enfield, north London, children sit on the carpet and give their news. "Last night I goed home and played with my toys," announces Joseph. Matt says his cough is "not better". Tony, a tiny, hunched figure, says nothing. Teacher Sue Burgess leans forward and gently touches his arm. "What have you got to tell us?" she asks softly. Tony looks puzzled and doesn't answer. She touches him again, seeking eye contact.
"Shops," he says finally, in a voice that sounds rusty from disuse. "You went to the shops?" says Sue, sounding delighted. "Is that why you weren't at school yesterday?" Tony doesn't seem to hear.
The classroom is in the heart of the school, but this is no ordinary lesson. A black rabbit lies snoozing in an open-topped wire run, and there's a large table, covered with a cloth and surrounded by 10 chairs. Curtains adorn the high Victorian windows, and a kitchen comes complete with some of the paraphernalia of a home - washing-up liquid, tea towels, pot plants, a kettle. Soon, while Sue Burgess reads Can't You Sleep Little Bear?, the room fills with the smell of toasting bread. The children discuss whether Little Bear looks frightened and if they ever feel the same way.
To the parents and 500 children of Brettenham, this room is known as "Rainbow class", but in special needs circles it is a "nurture group". Nurture groups were invented in 1970 by Marjorie Boxall, an educational psychologist in the Inner London Education Authority, based on the theory that the learning process centres on attachment and trust. Children without adequate nurturing quickly fall behind at school if the loss is not made good, she argued.
The success of nurture groups was beginnning to be proved when they were dealt a near-fatal blow by the abolition of the ILEA. Now, however, they are enjoying a revival countrywide as both the Government and schools recognise their potential. Cheaper and apparently more effective than other forms of support, nurture groups can help schools succeed with that most intractable group of special needs children - those with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
Linda Squelch, headteacher at Brettenham, swears by the group. "It's a relief mechanism," she says. "With children with particular social and emotional problems, it relieves some pressure and frees up the mainstream class teacher."
Six primary schools in Enfield have nurture groups, each for a maximum of 10 children between the ages of five and seven. Their role, as the name suggests, is to give children warm and careful attention, at the level at which they require it.
The work of the group looks deceptively simple. While classroom assistant Jean Morrison makes breakfast in the "kitchen", Sue Burgess and the children continue with Little Bear. The children discuss the difference between yawning and snoring, about jumping on beds and whether it's sensible, about the kind of lantern Big Bear fetches to dispel the "darkness all around". Six-year-old Jamie reveals: "I go out with my friends when the sun's gone." And: "I'm scared outside. There's shadows."
Talking is a vital part of the group's work. "We talk all day long," says Sue Burgess, "with the aim of teaching them the national curriculum content and how to listen and talk. These are not the kids who will be volunteering answers to the teacher's questions."
Children in the group keep strong links with their own classes, arriving there for morning register and joining classmates for playtime, lunch, PE and music sessions. This helps their re-integration - typically after about three terms - and keeps class teachers abreast of each child's progress.
Brettenham's nurture group currently includes a refugee child from the devastated Caribbean island of Montserrat, two from homes plagued by mental illness, and others from poor or disrupted backgrounds. All happen to be boys, but gender is not particularly significant. Girls can also be violently disturbed, and boys can be sad and sit rocking in a corner, as Tony used to. The nurture group's work is eased, though, by having a mix of boys and girls with a range of behaviours. "You can't work if the children are all acting up, or are all withdrawn," says Sue Burgess.
Chat continues around the breakfast table as the children sit down to toast and drinks, an important part of the routine-based group day. The conversation ranges from how many yo-yos Ahmir had in Turkey, to whether Sue Burgess might be 99 years old, and what to do about lost PE kit. There is a family atmosphere: intimate with good-humoured squabbling. Meanwhile the children are learning to use a knife, pass the marmalade, not talk with their mouths full, or eat in silence. Some are also getting their first food of the day. Tony beams broadly when he succeeds in spreading his own jam.
Sue Burgess and Jean Morrison are completely focused on these children, treating them with warmth, responding to each one's needs. The two adults provide calm and stability. All the same, what they're doing here is teaching - not mothering.
"A nurture group is not just for emotional support or therapeutic play, however helpful that may be," says Marion Bennathan, chair of the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties and Marjorie Boxall's co-author. "It is for precisely targeted teaching."
Staff in Enfield have developed their own "nurture group curriculum" as an adjunct to the national curriculum. It provides a more finely graded way of measuring children's progress, recognising small achievements such as "makes marks on paper" or "recognises and reacts to familiar people". There is formal recognition of what children can do, not just what they can't.
Marion Bennathan stresses that a nurture group has to be a whole-school venture to succeed. "Anyone who says, or even thinks, 'Why is this horrible child getting all this extra attention?' can undermine the group," she says. But everyone can benefit. Teachers see children getting the help they require; other children are spared the disruption they cause; parents get the non-judgmental assistance they need.
Miriam Harris's daughter, Jenny, changed after the death of her grandmother. "She became mixed up and not with it at all," says Miriam. "She was getting picked on in school, she had no confidence and she couldn't talk to me because it upset me." Jenny is now back in her class after two terms in Rainbow. "Whatever they've done, it's a miracle," says Miriam. "They turned her around. Now she's got more confidence than she should have."
Nurture groups are no pana-cea. But they do seem to work. Data collected over the years in Enfield shows that around 85 per cent of children go back to the classroom without the need for additional help. Children who, because of budget cuts, could not get places in a nurture group were seven times more likely to end up in special schools than their nurtured peers.
The Department for Education and Employment has signalled its support for the groups by funding a research project to promote them, based at Cambridge University. The DFEE's action plan on special needs, published this month, states that the groups "offer an educational programme precisely structured to the emotional, social and intellectual needs of each pupil while keeping them in close contact with their normal class".
With emotional and behavioural difficulties in children growing at an alarming rate, particularly in deprived areas, an affordable and practical response is welcome. Figures from Enfield suggest that, at under pound;3,000, it costs around 75 per cent less to support a child via a nurture group than through part-time classroom assistants and specialist teaching. Early intervention of this kind can avoid all the costs of statementing.
Back at Brettenham, Joseph is wearing a policeman's helmet and has Jean Morrison under arrest. Tony has just returned from a music lesson with his class. Sue Burgess picks Smokey out of his run. Apprehensively, Tony reaches out to touch the black fur. Then again. "Is he lovely?" says Sue Burgess. "Yes," says Tony, with conviction.
All children's names have been changed * 'Effective Intervention in Primary School: nurture groups' by Marion Bennathan and Marjorie Boxall (1996 David Fulton pound;11.99) * For information on nurture grouptraining, contact Dr Paul Cooper, School of Education, University of Cambridge, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2BX or Marion Bennathan, 24 Murray Mews, London NW1 9RJ.