Our vulnerable pupils need a little more TLC

20th March 2009 at 00:00

A significant minority of our children are struggling and disengaged from our education system. Recent TES Cymru headlines - "Asbos are not the answer", "Lessons ordered to stop suicides", "Poor primary pupils five times more likely to be excluded" and "Troubled children are not offered right sort of help" - show this to be true. Clearly, there is a consistent theme here and it's our communities that are paying the price socially and financially.

I take hope from Dr Bill Maxwell's most recent chief inspector's report. In it he said it was time for schools to focus on learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. Perhaps next year he could launch his report from a school with outstanding provision for vulnerable children. Wouldn't it be great to celebrate the worth of these pupils?

I'm not convinced the Assembly government has a clear strategy to tackle this vulnerable group. Solutions are not articulated; rather, we are simply advised that "early identification" and "action" is critical. The same rhetoric continues to produce the same results - negative headlines.

Whatever happened to Professor Ken Reid's National Behaviour and Attendance Review? I suspect the report is gathering dust somewhere. This is a shame because its contents were visionary.

One strategy that is gaining recognition is the establishment of nurture groups. I have visited two inspiring examples at Gors Community School in Swansea and Maesglas Primary in Newport. Both take enormous pride in their pupils' achievements.

Nurture groups are to be found in more than 1,000 UK schools. A Channel 4 Dispatches show recently highlighted their beneficial impact. For nearly 40 years, the groups have been demonstrating that, with the right early support, children can flourish.

So why is the strategy not being advocated by the Assembly government? Perhaps it's because the idea of good relationships as the basis for effective teaching is contentious. Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, which offers psycho-social support to 11,000 vulnerable inner-city children, repeatedly articulates the importance of "loving care". She suggests that by attending to children's emotional and social needs, we will achieve health, education and crime targets.

Neuroscientists back this up. They tell us that the human brain is predominantly experience-dependent: what you put in is what you get out. So put in nurture and you'll get out pro-social behaviour.

Interestingly, the recent Children's Society report, A Good Childhood, put love - in the sense of a long-term commitment to someone else's wellbeing - at the centre of children's needs (and adults' too).

So are we afraid to love? Surely, this is not the case in Wales with our strong community identity. Are we held back by child protection issues? Love can easily be misinterpreted, causing dilemmas for staff.

I don't think either of these factors have impeded the development of nurture groups. A lack of a political will and consequent funding are more likely culprits. While we can acknowledge, like the chief inspector, the limited success of the Raise programme (Raising Attainment and Individual Standards in Education), it does not go far enough, and not enough children are benefiting.

My school's nurture group, Rockets, recently described as having outstanding provision by an inspection team, is under threat. We established the group because we share the chief inspector's view that the achievement levels of vulnerable pupils are a serious issue for us all, and we wanted to address concerns regarding some pupils' ability to cope.

We financed the group within a deficit budget. This is no longer sustainable as budget recovery plans make no allowance for the educational needs of vulnerable pupils. Unless we receive additional funding, the nurture group will be disbanded.

Let's be under no illusions: supporting the vulnerable requires commitment and funding. Sadly, in Wales, funding is not one of our strengths. We need to think long term. The good news is that early intervention is cost effective. If children's emotional, social or behavioural issues are not dealt with early, they can lead to youth offending, social exclusion, mental health problems and a failure to learn.

The solutions are out there. Nurture groups, with their kind, consistent and interested staff should be funded as part of a strategic approach through all sectors in Wales. All authorities should develop an attachment support service to give schools help and advice. This would provide a greater understanding of the behavioural issues that lead to vulnerability.

There needs to be widespread recognition that relationships are pivotal in supporting children who have experienced either trauma or loss. Teachers should be taught how to handle this when training.

Where there is success, it must be celebrated. We all need to be nurtured. But we need leadership and a clear well-funded strategic direction. It's time that dusty attendance review was retrieved from its shelf and enacted in our classrooms. Otherwise, the vulnerable will remain vulnerable.

John Healy, Head of Our Lady and St Michael's Primary School, Abergavenny.

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