Nurture groups were the brainchild of educational psychologist Marjorie Boxall in 1969. Large numbers of young children were entering primary school in Inner London with severe emotional, behavioural and social difficulties, which led to unmanageable rates of referral for placement in special schools or for child guidance treatment. Boxall understood that the difficulties presented by most of these children were a result of impoverished early nurturing, meaning they were not able to make trusting relationships with adults or to respond appropriately to other children. They were not ready to meet the social and intellectual demands of school life, which further damaged their already fragile self-confidence and self-esteem.
The remedy was to place them in ‘nurture groups’, classes of six to 12 children with a teacher and an assistant, whose brief was to engage with the children at the developmental stage they had reached and to support them in meeting learning goals step by step. As the children felt accepted and valued, their confidence grew and they began to learn, with 80% returning to their base class full-time.
Children in nurture groups were not stigmatised and were kept part of their base class by registering there in the morning and returning for the last part of the afternoon. The whole school was trained to give support, so that base class teachers sent the child off with the group teacher or assistant to have a good day and greeted them with interest on their return. The reputation of the groups was so high that other children wanted to join and most schools devised ways for allowing this, such as invitations to tea, or sharing story-time.
After the Inner London Education Authority was disbanded in 1989 the new Inner London Boroughs did not include nurture groups in their special education plans and while many schools held on to their nurture groups, there was no longer a national focus.
The Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (AWCEBD) was concerned by the probable effects of the 1988 Education Act on the children they helped. The Act, introduced the National Curriculum, with its emphasis on raising attainments, on assessment and publication of results, on parental choice of schools. It seemed likely to make school less tolerant of troubled and troublesome children, so nurture groups urgently needed to be back on the public agenda. In 1996, Effective Intervention in Primary Schools: Nurture Groups by Marion Bennathan and Marjorie Boxall was published, putting nurture groups in the changed educational setting, and drawing heavily on the experience of Enfield, an Outer London Borough, where nurture groups had been set up. They were part of the LEA’s special needs policy, were set up to agreed procedures with outcomes assessed and audited annually.
In 1999 Social Inclusion: Pupil Support, was issued by the Department for Education in collaboration with the Social Exclusion Unit, the Home Office and the Department of Health. The paper focused on the need for regular attendance at school and high standards of behaviour; on reducing the level of unauthorised absences and exclusions. It acknowledged that pupils with emotional and/or behavioural difficulties are at particular risk of poor attendance or of exclusion. Again attention was drawn to the effective early intervention provided in Enfield by nurture groups. As a result the Nurture Group Consortium created a certificate course in nurture group work. This was followed by similar courses at Leicester and at the Institute of Education.
From 2004 to 2006 the Nurture Group Network expanded and the Majorie Boxall Quality Mark Award for outstanding nurture groups. When Boxall died, she left NGN a substantial legacy which will contribute enormously to the continuing development and growth of the Network’s activities.
Fast forward to 2014 and there are more than 1,500 nurture groups in the UK alone with more being set up every day. The Nurture Group Network continues to grow, training and helping more practitioners set up nurture groups in their schools. The CEO, staff and Trustee Board are making significant progress in taking nurture to the heart of Government thanks to research and awareness raising, all to ensure children and young people are ready to learn and the nurture group approach is available to all.