Naughty by nature?

16th February 2007 at 00:00
Nurture groups are improving the quality of children's lives - and they could help banish Asbos for good. Hannah Frankel speaks to the teachers who are helping 'problem pupils' succeed

It was difficult to know what to do about Craig. The five-year-old would hit, swear, bite and spit at pupils and teachers. His school replaced his shoes with plimsolls and made him play on his own, but beyond that, staff did not know how to handle him. Eventually, the school excluded him, unable to cope with the "monster" he had become.

It was Christ Church First School in Frome, Somerset, that finally took Craig on. There, teachers spent hours looking through several thick folders on different managing strategies.

"The one missing factor was any mention about developing a mean-ingful relationship based on trust," says Simon Bishop, a teacher at Christ Church. The school's answer was to place Craig in its blossoming nurture group, called Kaleidoscope.

Nurture groups were introduced in 1970 by Marjorie Boxall, an educational psychologist, but their true potential is only just being realised.

Based on the theory that the learning process centres on attachment and trust, the groups help vulnerable pupils build self-esteem in a family-like environment.

Small groups of pupils are taught in separate rooms by two members of staff for anything up to a year.

During this time, they maintain contact with their classes and friends, and may even delve in and out of mainstream lessons. Back in the nurture group, teachers provide a warm and loving atmosphere, complete with plenty of discussion, eye-contact, reassurance and practical activities, until the pupils are emotionally ready to go back into the wider school environment more permanently.

For Craig, the transformation has been nothing short of extraordinary.

After a year in Kaleidoscope, he is now fully integrated in a mainstream Year 2 class. He still has a learning assistant assigned to him, and pops into the nurture group every so often, but the extreme behaviour is over.

"At his last school, all I heard was negatives about Craig's behaviour,"

says his mother. "He didn't know how to interact there, but through Kaleidoscope he has learnt how to play with others, and he's progressing all the time. His teachers seem to actually like him. Having teachers who understand, who are patient and who are consistent make all the difference."

Craig is typical of thousands of other pupils who have benefited from nurture groups. To date, there are about 1,000 groups in primary and secondary schools across the UK. Of those, about 80 per cent have successfully reintegrated children with emotional, behavioural or social difficulties into mainstream education, according to the Nurture Group Network.

Research conducted earlier this year by Sue Reynolds, area principal psychologist in Glasgow, supports the findings. Her study, which involved 179 pupils, concludes that those in nurture groups make significant improvements in every category, some of which are "very substantial". The nurture group children she studied even overtook those in the control group in terms of basic attainment, despite having lower scores to start with.

"I thought the nurture group would make emotional progress, but I did not expect them to do better than the control group - that really was incredible," Sue says. "There was not one negative finding for those attending the nurture group."

Instead, the pupils interacted better with their peers and responded positively to adult instructions. They also displayed increased self-esteem and were more motivated to learn.

Christ Church introduced its nurture group six years ago, in response to a considerable number of troubled pupils from the local Keyford area, the fourth poorest ward in Somerset.

The youngsters frequently have a range of emotional and behavioural difficulties, which can result in them either becoming quiet and withdrawn, or else boisterous and disruptive. Many have been excluded from other schools. One six-year-old was so aggressive, his previous school forced him to wear a fluorescent jacket in the playground so that staff could keep an eye on him.

After three months in Kaleidoscope, he stopped feeling ostracised and angry and started to smile. "If a child can't meet the demands of the school, then the school must meet the demands of the child," says Simon Bishop, who runs Kaleidoscope and is writing a book on the subject.

"You have to believe each child can change and function in the classroom, and then that is exactly what they do. We have seen a profound change in some cases."

Gors Community Primary in Swansea has had a similar experience. It started its nurture group in 2002 to help pupils who found the class setting daunting. It used to temporarily exclude about nine pupils a year; now it rarely excludes any.

The school also makes less referrals to external support agencies and has seen attendance improve. Nurture groups could banish Asbos for good, according to Keith Atkins, the headteacher. "We are getting funding from the council budget, because Swansea can see that this is an investment for the future," he says. "It saves money on exclusions, referrals, social services, youth justice work - everything. And it's changing the quality of children's lives."

Early intervention is crucial if problems are to be nipped in the bud, but older pupils may need support. Shevington High School became the first secondary in Wigan to introduce nurture groups five years ago, in response to a Year 7 cohort who were displaying more problems than usual.

"The pupils had not eaten breakfast, and were arriving without their equipment, dinner money or uniform," explains Cathy Gaunt, the school's special needs co-ordinator.

"They just looked utterly dishevelled. They were not prepared to learn because they were emotionally upset and physically hungry."

One boy was turning up to school late in a grubby, smelly uniform. It emerged that his mother was sending him out to scavenge for food in bins, while his father was in prison. He was eventually taken into care, but was moved regularly between foster homes. His stability was the school, and its "Diamond" nurture group. Now in Year 11, he has blossomed.

He helps the younger Diamonds and wants to become a drama teacher.

Shevington now invites vulnerable Year 6 pupils in to visit the nurture group once a week during the summer term.

The programme has also been extended to include Years 7 to 10, and involves pulling pupils out of mainstream classes into the Diam-ond group for a maximum of two hours a week. There is no stigma attached to the group, and the weekly Diamond lunch is well attended by past and present members.

"Nurture groups are a win-win situation," says Simon. "Struggling parents feel supported; classroom teachers don't have to deal with difficult pupils; and vulnerable children feel valued. In 20 years of teaching, it is the best thing I have come across."


Kaleidoscope is a safe, homely environment, roughly resembling a kitchen, bedroom, play area and living room. The 10 pupils may be six to eight years old, but developmentally, they are more like toddlers, and their speaking and listening skills are noticeably limited.

As such, the discussions are relatively basic, while the activities are largely home-orientated, such as following a cake recipe. Each time the pupils positively contribute, they are congratulated, either verbally or through a reassuring hand-pat. Eye-contact is maintained throughout to show that they are being listened to.

The day is built around the principles of: same people, place and time.

This routine offers pupils a degree of certainty that they may not have at home. The two teachers represent parent figures, so there is plenty of hugging, tickling and playing, as well as learning in a more structured environment.

Sarah Bullmore, the head, is convinced: "It may not raise academic standards in the short-term, but in the long-term it gives pupils the tools to achieve in a mainstream setting."

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