Nurture groups are a successful and cost-effective way of tackling behavioural issues
Nurture groups, a specialist form of provision for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD), provide children and young people with an educational bridge to permanent reintegration into mainstream classrooms. First established in the Inner London Education Authority in 1970 by Marjorie Boxall, nurture groups (NGs) were created to replace “missing or distorted” early nurturing experiences by immersing children in accepting and warm environments that help develop positive relationships with NG staff and their peers.
Placements in an NG can be either short- or medium-term, with the average pupil returning fully to their mainstream classes in between two and four terms. Since 1990, there has been a resurgence of interest in NGs, compounded by the rising tide of SEBD among children, the endorsement of the approach by the Department for Education in its 1997 Green Paper Excellence for All Children, as well as the publication of the first book on nurture groups in 2000 by Marion Bennathan and Marjorie Boxall. Currently there are over 1500 nurture groups in the UK.
Principles and practices
Nurture groups are developed around six principles of nurture:
- learning is understood developmentally
- the classroom offers a safe base
- the importance of nurture for the development of self-esteem
- language as a vital means of communication
- all behaviour is communication
- the importance of transition in the lives of children and young people.
The nurture group classroom is a hybrid of home and school environments, with soft furnishings, kitchen and dining facilities – a space the students have to share with two NG staff and six to twelve other children/young adults. Not only does sharing the NG environment with other students help pupils practice social skills that are fundamental to their reintegration into mainstream classes, it also prevents any inappropriate attachment between themselves and nurture group staff; the goal of NGs is not to usurp the parent/child relationship, but to create a positive attachment to the school.
The two adults are always present in the room and their positive interactions serve as a model for cooperation. The NG staff engage intensely with each student within a daily routine that is explicit, uniform and predictable; activities undertaken include emotional literacy sessions, news-sharing, group activities, curriculum tasks and nurture breakfasts. The social and developmental targets for each student in the nurture group are devised on the Boxall Profile, which is a detailed psychometric assessment of their social, emotional and behavioural functioning (as well as academic progress).
Integrating students back into mainstream classes is a fundamental priority of nurture groups. The pupil’s connection to the school outside of the NG is maintained by keeping all pupils on the roll in their main class, and regularly returning pupils to their mainstream classroom to participate in curriculum time. A whole-school policy is thus fundamental to the success of NGs, and mainstream teachers are regularly invited to join in with activities in the nurture group, as well as participating in shared planning and target setting with NG staff to offer consistent expectations and routines across both settings.
Part of the whole-school success of NGs is the regular involvement of parents, who are given ample opportunities to provide feedback; staff in turn provide ideas and equipment for home activities, as well as supporting parents to develop appropriate interaction strategies and management for the home. Dr Roosje Rautenbach from the University of Exeter conducted research in 2010 regarding parents’ impressions on changed outcomes as a result of their child joining a nurture group. These changes included significant improvements in social, emotional and behavioural skills, improvement in attitudes, attendance, academic learning and extra-curricular engagement, as well as significant changes at home and in parenting approaches.
Making groups work
There are many theoretical models that underpin the effectiveness of nurture groups, first and foremost being John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which argues that children acquire age-appropriate behaviour through interactions with significant others. These relationships allow the child to locate themselves as distinct individuals in relation to other people – a fundamental psychological base required for learning. If a child’s early experiences are characterised by missing or distorted nurturing, this can lead to stunted social, emotional and cognitive development. By providing another opportunity to internalise models of effective relationships and form attachments to supportive and caring adults, NGs develop vulnerable children’s social and emotional functioning in order to reintegrate them into mainstream schooling in the long-term.
Another helpful theoretical model is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which argues that pupils are unable to access higher level needs such as self-esteem or self-actualisation without first achieving a sense of security and safety; NGs thus provide the necessary foundations required for higher level needs. Finally, Lev Vygotsky’s social-cultural theory of learning argues that effective learning strategies are dependent on the internalisation of functions experienced through social interaction. Individual learning thus takes place when a competent helper guides the pupil via direct cues, allowing the pupil to use his/her existing knowledge to acquire new knowledge.
Research and assessment
An extensive meta-review of nurture group research conducted in 2014 by the Nurture Group Network highlighted the successful outcomes of nurture groups in primary schools, including:
- children who attended an NG had a significant chance of improving their learning skills, including language and literacy skills
- NGs resulted in long-term improvements in pupils’ behaviour and social skills
- NGs resulted in a positive change to SEBD in the classroom and an improved behavioural ethos at school
- the younger the pupil was when s/he accessed the nurture group, the more significant the gains in social functioning and academic performance
- NGs result in a positive attachment to school
- the best results have been achieved when the nurture group has been in existence for at least two years.
Ofsted’s 2011 report on nurture groups confirmed most of these findings, concluding that NGs significantly modified pupils’ behaviour, improved SEBD, gave parents support, accelerated academic progress, enabled pupils to reintegrate with their mainstream class, modified the practice of mainstream staff, influenced the rest of the school practice and improved pupils’ attendance.
A viable option
Evaluations from local authorities and individual schools have also demonstrated that nurture groups are an economically sustainable support programme for children with SEBD. Though nurture group provision is estimated at approximately £5,500 per annum, this cost decreases to £1,883 per child in an established, classic nurture group that has up to 30 children throughout the year. This cost is relatively small in comparison to other support programme costs per annum which, according to 2009 figures by Enfield’s Local Authority, include complex needs placements (£13,000), out-of-borough day schools (£17,000), out-of-borough independent schools (£40,000) and full-time LSA support (£14,000).
Nurture groups can have a significant and long-term impact for those with SEBD. By receiving the necessary foundations required for higher level needs, children attending NGs are more likely to have a significant chance of improving their learning, behaviour and social skills, which in turn improves the school ethos and home life.
Kevin Kibble is chief executive of the Nurture Group Network: