The nature of nurture for troubled schoolchildren

1st January 2016 at 00:00
How hundreds of groups across Scotland are providing comfort to pupils at risk of mental health problems

Nurture groups have grown in popularity in Scotland in recent years, with a recent survey showing that they are more common here than anywhere else in the UK.

And Glasgow City Council is looking to take the idea to the next level – it wants to see the principles of nurture groups spreading through all schools.

What are nurture groups?

The groups comprise 12 or fewer children from troubled backgrounds, and are often run in schools by teachers. They provide an accepting and warm environment that may not always be the norm in children’s lives outside school.

Why are they needed?

The Mental Health Foundation discovered in 2014 that half of people with lifetime mental health problems first experienced symptoms before the age of 14, indicating that early intervention is crucial. Nurture groups can also help to bring down the financial cost to society of long-term mental health disorders, which in 2014 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said came to £70 billion annually in the UK.

Are all nurture groups run the same way?

Approaches vary, but there are common aspects: children eat breakfast with staff, which enables them to learn listening and speaking skills and see positive interaction between peers and adults; there are settees and soft chairs to create a homely environment, unlike a classroom; and good behaviour is rewarded rather than staff relying on punitive measures.

Aren’t these groups just a way of keeping badly behaved children away from their peers?

No. Not all children will have the same amount of time in nurture groups – it depends on individual circumstances. As their confidence grows, they will spend more time in mainstream classes and, eventually, may not have to visit the nurture room at all.

How did nurture groups come about?

The first nurture groups were started in London in 1969 by educational psychologist Marjorie Boxall, who wanted to help the many children she saw who could not form trusting relationships with adults or deal with the social and intellectual demands of school life. The groups are grounded in attachment theory, an area of psychology that focuses on the need to form secure and happy relationships in childhood.

Are these groups common in Scotland?

A Nurture Group Network census in July found at least 321 nurture groups, or one for every 8.3 schools (bit.ly/NurtureCensus). That was higher than the average in Wales (one for every 11.8 schools), England (14.3) and Northern Ireland (45.2). A separate report last month by Glasgow City Council, which has championed nurture groups as part of its early intervention policy since 2001, identified 99 across the city (bit.ly/NurturingCity).

What impact do nurture groups have?

Schools report big improvements in behaviour and attendance. Some 62 academic studies over the past two decades have shown long-term mental health improvements and significant gains in academic attainment.

Are they just for younger children?

Many nurture groups are in primary schools but they can also be found in secondary schools and young offenders’ institutions. In 2014 a report found that a trial project involving secondaries in West Lothian had led to dramatic behaviour improvements and a reduction in exclusions, and that the “vast majority” of teachers were impressed (bit.ly/WLothianNurture).

How are nurture groups viewed at a national level?

Education Scotland has backed nurture groups as a means of improving behaviour and creating more positive relationships. In 2014 a Scottish government paper, What Works to Reduce Crime?, stated that school-based nurture groups had been effective in reducing the risk of offending (bit.ly/ReduceCrime).

Are they expensive?

For a time, many councils seemed to think so. In 2012 North Lanarkshire, for example, identified that it could save £483,000 by closing all its nurture groups, but it ultimately backed away from the idea. More recently, councils have seemed inclined to keep nurture groups. However, the Nurture Group Network told TESS that anecdotal evidence suggested some councils might be looking to save money by removing specialist staff dedicated exclusively to nurture groups.

Are approaches to nurture groups changing?

The fundamentals remain the same but technology is starting to play a bigger role in some places. Glasgow nurture groups, for example, have recently started using an app that helps children to make sense of wellbeing indicators. Glasgow City Council also has ambitious plans to establish “nurturing principles” in all its educational establishments.

@Henry_Hepburn

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