The more recent resurgence of Nurture Groups in schools as a strategy of intervention for children who are struggling with mainstream classroom settings is worthy of an exploration. There are many concerns about the placing of ‘nurture’ within a curriculum based setting. Firstly, it is questionable whether all Nurture Groups follow the original Boxall criteria and if they don’t, then how is it possible to measure the success of them. Secondly, there is the issue as to whether Nurture Groups prevent the business of learning and as such reduce educational resilience for children who are already educationally vulnerable. Finally, the question as to whether all staff running Nurture Groups are adequately trained and supervised is of potential concern

As a passionate advocate of attachment based relationships within a whole school approach perspective to improve the ability for children to learn, I wanted to be clear about all of the issues. I wanted to acknowledge the potential weaknesses of such an approach and be clear about the research that sits underneath my standpoint and focusing on Nurture Groups enables those outcomes.

There are three key issues that I will be addressing in this essay with particular focus on the work of Gilies, Ecclestone and MacKay et al. First, should schools adopt interventions that focus on social and emotional development that take children away from learning. Second, do schools have the expertise and are they equipped, to manage the emotional outcomes that inevitably arise when we seek to ‘teach’ emotional literacy. And finally, if Nurture Groups are relevant then how do they improve the learning for those children who use them and ensure educational resilience.

I will also draw upon direct experience from a local Head Teacher who believes that Nurture Groups in schools have been fundamental to helping some of her children enabling them to develop the skills required to learn in a mainstream setting and avoid exclusion and a Nurture Group teacher who I’ll call Sarah, from another school.

SEBD Interventions and Academic Learning

Marjorie Boxall, in response to vulnerable children who had been excluded in Inner London schools in the 1970’s developed Nurture Groups. She identified children that she felt were not able to progress with learning in the classroom due to attachment difficulties, and she saw a direct correlation between learning and early childhood development (The Nurture Group Network, 2017). As an educational psychologist observing high exclusions and high staff turnover, Boxall must have appeared to be quite revolutionary for her time. Her understanding of child development, attachment needs and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), long before they had been named in that way, enabled a creation of an intervention that could focus on getting that aspect of a child’s development ‘right’ enabling a child to achieve in an academic setting; school.

As Sarah, a local teacher wrote to me “Nurture provides stability, routine, a safe place, a place to reflect, a place that gives opportunity to explore the paths that suit. It is a place that is able to provide holistic & cognitive learning providing lifelong skills that may have otherwise been missed. It is a consistent environment providing routine that is adaptable without change.”

Nurture Groups, when first established, responded to a crisis and as such they were a crisis intervention. On the contrary, it seems now that they are seen as an early intervention strategy. The purpose of a Nurture Group is to offer a small attachment based group that enables children to remain part of the wider class group while focusing on specific learning, social and emotional needs. Nurture Group philosophy is underpinned by Bowlby’s Attachment Theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy along with Vgostsky’s socio-cultural theory of learning (Cooper and Whitebread, 2007, p172) and works on the basis of six underpinning principles.

The Nurture Group Principles

  • Children’s learning is understood developmentally
  • It is understood that all behaviour is communication
  • The classroom offers a safe space
  • Nurture is important for the development of self esteem
  • Language is a vital means of communication
  • The importance of transitions in children’s lives is understood

(Boxall and Lucas, 2010, p15)

I am immediately struck by these principles as to me, they are principles for learning environments for children generally rather than just for a few identified children which opens up questions for me around how ‘caring’ is seen as children not ‘learning’ and therefore not academically achieving. Warin explores this further; “Whilst it is quite easy to argue for a ‘whole school ethos of care’ (who would not want this?) we need a definition of care that includes within it the strength of commitment that is represented within the idea of attachment and therefore present within the NG tradition” (2017, p196). Her suggestion is that there has to be a commitment to ‘caring’ within a Nurture Group setting and also in the context of a whole school approach.

MacKay et al in their study of the impact of Nurture Groups argue that there is a clear link between attachment and academic achievement (2010.) The links found between attachment and learning in this study do not stand alone (Bomber 2011, Cozolino 2013, Geddes 2006,) and the rise in popular understanding about attachment through a neurobiological lens may account for the recent rise in Nurture Groups across the country.

The groups saw a steady decline in the 1980’s to around 50 groups by the late 1990’s and yet by the end of the Noughties there were around 1000 Nurture Groups around the country (MacKay et al (2010) and right now, there are around 2000 (NGN, 2017). There is a huge body of evidence about childhood development, attachment, the impact of ACE’s and how this affects the growing child. The question is, does this intervention in a school setting enhance a child’s educational resilience or detract from it.

A small longitudinal study takes a case study out of a PhD to look at this more closely. Adie and Delafield-Butt argue that the intersubjectivity required in relationships are what are required in a learning environment such as the ability to attune, to regulate emotions, to concentrate and to communicate (2016, p4.) These required skills for learning they argue, are what happen in that early attachment relationship and Nurture Groups enable the learning of those required skills to commence where they are perceived to have been lacking.

Through the structure of an environment that feels safe, structured and predictable, the relationships provided can ‘teach’ the skills needed for the classroom and make children ‘classroom ready’ where they were previously not. As local teacher Sarah expressed “This intervention allows us adults to almost begin children’s lives all over again, teaching any vital missed skills, filling gaps as well as developing on learnt skills therefore providing the stepping stones to achieving better despite adversity, than if left without intervention. All 7 children (in the Nurture Group) have gradually, fully integrated into mainstream ready to learn. It takes a well balanced team & supportive SLT providing necessary training in order to produce stability & trust for vulnerable children not ready to learn curriculum based education.”

A larger study in Glasgow conducted by Reynolds et al, explores this further and also argues that the focus on social and emotional development does enhance educational capability rather than taking children away from their learning. This was a first study to use quantitative methods to demonstrate affectivity in levels of academic achievement and as such is at the beginning of that journey. However, they also noted that it might be that some of the children would have benefitted in the same way and shown the same progress, from being in a small class that did not apply the Nurture Group Principles.

Griffiths et al placed children’s voices at the heart of developing our understanding about the relevance of Nurture Groups in a learning setting and they were able to voice that the structure of the environment and the things that happened in that environment were of utmost importance such as sharing food and being comfortable (p132, 2014.) Children clearly, when asked, being able to make sense of what support them in school and presumably, when asked, this would help an articulation of what doesn’t support them in school. The interpersonal development for those children to be able to articulate what enables them to learn best could be argued as a ‘learning’ itself that encourages academic skills, although I haven’t come across this exploration while researching for this essay but it is made explicit that ‘awareness’ is a ‘core goal’ in Nurture Groups.

Teachers and Nurture

Nurture groups place a particular emphasis on promoting children’s ability to recognise and communicate feelings. A core goal is to develop empathy and awareness of oneself and also of others (Seth-Smith et al, 2010.) Gillies highlights this development of emotional literacy as “once viewed as inappropriate in an educational context, emotionality has become curriculum subject in its own right” (p187 2011.) Gillies argues that controlling emotions has become the new means by which learning can be managed so that the uncontrolled emotions do not prevent the business of school taking place. She is focusing generally on the development of the SEAL agenda and the growing emphasis on schools having to teach social and emotional skills per se, not just as a view on Nurture Groups.

Ecclestone and Hayes further argue that the teaching of emotions has to be measured and assessed in some way which creates difficulties around reliability and validity (2009, p40.) They go on to highlight that Nurture Groups provide a language of emotional communication that is then internalised by the children as fact, internalising labels and construction of the self which then becomes negative and full of routine assumptions. They highlight the work of Bailey (2007) who concludes that compassion and healing towards the child is shifted. The child becomes the problem and encompasses this within the dynamic by internalising the labels that are used to develop emotional literacy. This leaves systems and structures free from critique and challenge. …”SEAL initiatives encourage institutions to look beyond the socially embedded experiences of pupils to identify individual deficits” (Gillies, 2010, p196).

Edwards et al continues with this theme arguing that the new knowledge gained from ‘brain science’ ignores social context, is Eurocentric and uses the term ‘parenting’ to mean mothering. Far from offering us knowledge about interventions that can break the cycle, it potentially sits far closer to eugenics and determinism than it initially appears. Or as Zembylas and Fendler argue “the application of emotional intelligence becomes a technology of schooling and management and joins with other disciplinary technologies to function as a mode of normalization” (2007, p323).

They go on to assert that placing emotional intelligence into education continues the view that emotion and rationality are separate, the mind body dualism is perpetuated in this way and needs to be dealt with under the guidance of ‘experts’ (2007, p325).

Gillies makes an eloquent case around the desire to create emotional literacy so that children and young people can better express themselves whilst at the same noting that classrooms do not want emotions expressed. In fact, she notes, it is the very expression of feelings that gets the pupils into trouble; unless they are the ‘correct’ feelings. “Children in nurture groups learn behaviour that renders them more rewarding and likable to both peers and adults” (Seth-Smith, 2010, p30) which Gillies would undoubtedly argue is social control set against a cultural, middle class version of desirable behaviour and expression of emotion. In this complex, loaded view of emotional expression, what are the implications in day to day life for pupils and students in this new emotionally expressive classroom?

Another challenge to be considered is what the experience, knowledge and expertise of the staff leading Nurture Groups is and how that is standardised. It seems clear that there is great variation not just in the staff who run the groups but also in the support, that is the supervision, that they then receive as they are working with children with what can be described as having significant needs. After all, Boxall was an Educational Psychologist and as Birch points out, EP’s have the research knowledge and skills to evaluate effectiveness and provide support around that (2016, p41). Interestingly in Birch’s small focus group, training for staff was identified as the very last item ranking in importance with suitable, spacious and calm area to work listed as the first.

Rae notes that “the Government published guidelines for education staff in England, Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools: Advice for School Staff (Department for Education 2015), which contain advice on various clinical conditions teachers may encounter but little on promoting well-being of staff or indeed the pivotal role that EPs can play in embedding proactive, systemic approaches to promote staff well-being” (2017, p201). I’m always very aware when I deliver training in schools that supervision simply isn’t part of the culture even when staff are working with pupils with social, emotional and behavioural challenges unlike say in a social work setting where supervision is very much a part of the culture. As Rae et al state, “many school staff may have little awareness of supervision and its purpose as a way of developing greater awareness of their own reactions and responses to young people and understanding the dynamics of their interactions with young people” (2017, 202). There are of course difficulties within this that I am unable to explore here. However, it may give some explanation to Ecclestone’s concerns about what she calls ‘therapeutic entrepreneurs’ (2017) and the rise of them in the context of training school staff as an anecdote to a lack of suitable supervision processes.

I was unable to find research that had assessed variations in staff across at least some of the 2000 groups running across the country. If I had, I imagine I would have found that some groups are run by two staff, some by one and that some staff are teachers and some are Learning Support Assistants or Teaching assistants.  Some have a lot of input from Educational Psychologists, some have a little and some have none.  It is also possible that a study may have discovered that some staff are really ‘committed to care’ as Warin noted as an ideal, and others not so much. In the Guidance provided by The Nurture Group Network for starting a group, it states that two permanent staff must be identified to run the Nurture Group and that the essential training must be attended so that ‘nurture’ is understood. With the financial pressures on schools and therefore staffing however, it might be reasonable to assume that not all staff who work in Nurture Groups will have been on the training.


I think it is absolutely vital that we continue to question and pay attention to the potential for biological, psychological and neuroscientific explanations around distress to be used as a traditional form of social control and managing undesirable behaviour. Attachment theory has a long history of feminist critique for its’ focus on the mother child dyad as does education as a means of social control from a Marxist perspective.

Ecclestone leaves us with a cautionary thought that requires an entirely separate exploration;  “…it is important not to trivialise vulnerability, nor suggest that it is a mere social construction or just an outcome of psychologising everyday problems. Instead, in a context where crises seem unmanageable, and where claims about the ticking time bomb of mental ill-health create an especially potent, far-reaching fear, the cultural and political privileging of vulnerability and governing through neurosis make more people feel more anxious, stressed and mentally unwell (2017, p58.)

The intersubjective experience of Ecclestones overview of the bigger picture is expressed by Bailey (2007) who argues that the thread that runs through Nurture Group philosophy is that the ‘developmental impoverishment’ (Boxall, 2002, p. 3) of the child’s home situation makes explicit the idea that poor attachment is the ‘cause’ of the challenging behaviour. All concerned, including the child, must on some level internalise this ‘unspoken knowledge’ on many levels and it becomes the focus of intervention “…that the adoption of a language of individual vulnerability furthers that vulnerability.” Bailey (2017, p9).

The central tenet of nurture groups, it is claimed, is their focus on ‘growth, not pathology’ (Boxall, 2002, p. 10). “However, this ‘growth’ is conceptualised according to ‘normal development’, ‘normal parenting’, ‘normal learning experiences’ a ‘normal educational continuum’, and the role each can play in averting the ‘disastrous future’ (Boxall, 2002, p. ix) which these children would otherwise necessarily face. Thus despite the claims of non-pathology, this conceptualisation of the need for nurture in the face of dysfunctional families and future disaster is illustrative of nurture’s adoption of a psycho-medicalised language of risk and the normal/pathological duality” (Bailey, 2007, p10).

It is important that academic explorations such as those by Gillies and Eccelstone do not lose the focus of the child within them. At the heart of all we do, the child’s welfare is paramount and has to sit in the centre of our research. Some children find classrooms incredibly distressing spaces and those environments and the demands of the curriculum and upon teachers is not going to end any time soon. It is imperative and ethically and morally correct that we do not add to the distress of children by not ensuring that the starting point is that we do not add to any harm that may have already happened in whatever context we understand that.  We must continue to seek ways that enable them to have a positive experience within education where possible which may contrast with home environments for some, while for others may not. Schools as ‘blame agents’, that pathologise parents and/or the children, cannot be an unintended consequence of intervention that is intended to have a positive outcome.

Alongside the child’s wellbeing, it is more than important than ever that a child is able to build their resilience within education. Long gone are the days when tenacity would get you through the door for an interview without clutching GCSE certificates in Maths and English. For vulnerable children and young people, educational resilience is vital if there is to be any hope of social mobility or ‘breaking the cycle’ in the society that they are growing up in. I would like to think that Gillies would understand the realities of this for many of our children alongside offering a critique of it.

This is essay has highlighted that I would further like to explore how suitable clinical supervision can be integrated into a school setting that not only supports Nurture Group staff but all school staff and how that might have been discussed in relation to the upcoming amendment in the Education Act 2002 which states that schools will “promote(s) the mental health and wellbeing of pupils alongside academic attainment.”

At the time of writing the aforementioned Schools (Mental Health and Wellbeing) Bill [HL] 2017-19 had just had its first reading in the House of Lords. Once passed, the option of whether or not schools engage in the social and emotional and developmental needs of children will no longer be up for discussion and we will be operating in a very different territory altogether. Nurture Groups are therefore very much relevant in a school setting. For some schools this will feel like a continuum of their practice and for others, a step too far away from the curriculum. It will be interesting to watch how this will manifest over the coming months.



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