Imagine a quick, effective, affordable way of helping troubled young children overcome their problems and keep up in school. Imagine the difference it would make to those children's future, and the huge savings it would offer society in terms of the educational and youth support services that would no longer be necessary.
If such a thing exists, surely it would be up and running in every school in the land?
Well, it already is, and has done for nearly 40 years. But only now is its full potential coming to light.
Nurture groups were first set up in London in the Seventies by an educational psychologist, Marjorie Boxall, who realised that children who arrived in the classroom from stressful or disrupted backgrounds were never going to flourish, unless they were given a safe place in school where they could develop and grow. Many of these children, she observed, behaved more like toddlers than young children, and needed to catch up, both socially and emotionally, before they could progress.
Such groups were taken up enthusiastically at first, but then fell victim to a changing educational climate in which any sort of special schooling came to be seen as exclusive, and where schools were swept up in the league-table culture. By 1998, there were only 50 nurture groups in the whole of the UK.
Now, though, the tide has turned. Today's heads and teachers understand better than their predecessors how emotional well-being underpins learning. They are also having to cope with a rising number of young children with problems. In addition, the Government's Every Child Matters agenda has turned the spotlight on the power of early intervention, and on the needs of the individual child.
"For a time, there was something of a conflict between the achievement culture and the nurturing culture, but nurture groups have grown fast over the past five years," says Jim Rose, director of the Nurture Group Network. "There are at least 1,000 groups, and probably more, in primary schools – mostly five- to seven-year-olds in Key Stage One, although they are spread right across the primary range – and there are now also about 100 in secondary schools."
And evidence of their success is mounting. In Glasgow, which has 58 groups, research published earlier this year showed that they have a significant impact not only on attendance and behaviour, but also on academic achievement.
Groups usually cater for 10 to 12 children, picked by careful assessment. They will spend part of their day in them for anything from a few months to just over a year, before returning full-time to the classroom. They are run by specially trained teachers and teaching assistants who offer a warm, structured environment where children are encouraged to build their confidence and learn good behaviour. Children get plenty of hugs and chances to play, as well as clear rules, and coaching in basic social skills such as how to share and have a conversation.
The input is intense – praise and encouragement are constant – and the rewards are high. The London borough of Enfield has had nurture groups since 1981, and now has 13, which it supports with training. A study here in the Nineties showed that 83 per cent of children who had been supported in a nurture group were able to later function in the classroom without additional help, compared to only 55 per cent of children with similar problems who had not had the nurture group experience.
"These groups are a proven and powerful way to work with children and their parents," says Gill Buckland, a nurture group training and liaison officer. The alternatives – giving a child full-time learning support or a place at a special needs school – can cost anything up to £20,000 a year.
Paul Cooper, professor of education at Leicester University, has been evaluating their impact. "All the work seems to be suggesting that nurture groups are effective. What is important is that they seem to have a whole-school effect. Not only do children in the nurture group improve, but so do other children in school with similar problems. A properly functioning nurture group will be feeding ideas into the school, and will offer teachers a much more positive way of thinking about the kind of children who often leave them in despair. "
But Cooper warns that groups won't work if they are imposed on schools by local authorities. "They have to come from the school, and the role of the head is particularly important."
Carole Williams, head teacher of Short Wood Primary School in Telford, is one school leader who could not be without her nurture group. "It takes in six children from nursery and reception," she says. "The kind of children who are unable to negotiate and collaborate, are withdrawn, or find it difficult to communicate."
After 12 weeks, they are reintegrated. Out of the 36 or so who have been in the group since it started, only two have not maintained the progress they made in the nurture room. One child has a statement for special educational needs; the other has developmental delay causing immature behaviour. But that is still not a failure, Williams says – one of the benefits of a nurture group is that they allow teachers to get a statement for a child quickly because the preliminary work has already been done.
"I'd say to any head: do it," she says. "It's so valuable in all sorts of ways. For one thing, parents are encouraged to get involved, and then they are watching how other adults behave towards their children and learning from that."
Telford and Wrekin local education authority is now planning to support more school nurture groups. "We've now got them in seven primary schools and one secondary," says Eileen Greenaway, a behaviour support teacher. "The beauty of the model is that it's so flexible. All the children go back in to the mainstream, but if one of them is having a bad day in the classroom you can always say, 'Come and have a snack with us.' And then they stay a little time, and feel better, and go back. And the results are fantastic. Children sometimes have a dip when they first return full-time to the classroom, but after two terms they are usually back on track."
'We do a lot of talking about emotions in here'
Alison Turk is a warm, yet firm, teaching assistant whose group of eight- and nine-year-olds clearly adore her. They laugh when she pulls faces, and respond when she coaxes them to talk. One little boy can barely tear his eyes away from her face.
"We've got some visitors this afternoon," she says, once the half-dozen boys and their two leaders are seated, "and we're going to introduce ourselves and tell them what we're good at."
Hesitantly, the boys offer that they are good at cartwheels, maths and art. These children are not used to feeling good about anything, and their wary eyes and restless manner show that they still have many problems to overcome. But they are making progress.
"In here," saysTurk, "we share and we care for others, don't we? We are gentle and we have feelings for other people. And you're all good at that."
Two boys pass round juice and biscuits, which are eaten with careful manners and no gulping. The talk turns to the techniques that this room has helped them to develop.
"If you're upset," says one, "you can use square breathing. That's when you breathe in for four, and you hold it for four, and you let it out for four, and then you wait for another four. After I do it I feel better."
Turk says she has watched pupils use it to calm themselves in playground confrontations. "We do a lot of talking about emotions in here."
Ticehurst and Flimwell Church of England primary school, set in the rolling East Sussex landscape, looks like any other idyllic village school, but like all schools it regularly takes in a minority of children who are too withdrawn or troubled to cope with learning.
Two years ago, it set up Neptune's Kingdom, a colourful sea-themed room where such children can go to learn social and emotional skills and to build their confidence. The core group go for several afternoons a week, other small groups less often, but all feel the benefit – as does everyone in the school.
Deputy head Lisa Hobby says the atmosphere in her classroom has been fundamentally changed after the most disruptive pupils received support. The head Maggie Sharpe says: "One of our boys has been completely transformed."
Turk points out the nurture group also provides an ideal, informal way of working with parents. "Parents are doing the best they can, but they are often struggling. They see us as friends. I've even been rung up in the evening and asked to tell one of my boys that he has to have a bath!"
Almost all the children move out of the nurture group after a few terms and back into the classroom, where most are able to settle down to learning and to handle school life.
Yet it has been relatively inexpensive to organise. The room is a former stock room, with furniture from Ikea, and is staffed by two specially trained teaching assistants. Turk, who helped to set it up, also persuaded the local community fund to contribute £500. This summer she won the award for Teaching Assistant of the Year in the South-east. "I've always veered towards the more challenging children," she says, giving one a quick hug as he leaves the room. "Once you understand them, it's easy to work with them."