Primary schools could benefit from a bit more nurturing
I firmly believe it is important that as many children as possible get a good start in life - important for the children, important for their families and important for society.
That is why I took some time last Friday to call into the annual meeting of the Northern Ireland Nurture Group Network to hear a presentation on nurture groups by the Centre for Effective Education at Queen's University.
There were principals and teachers from schools which are part of the Nurture Group Network, and I was pleased to see Geoff Dunn, principal of Ballysally Primary School in Coleraine.
When I was appointed Minister for Social Development in May 2011 one of my first ministerial visits was to the Ballysally estate, and that included a visit to the primary school.
I was impressed by the school, but I was particularly impressed by the nurture room and the work of the nurture group. Geoff explained that Ballysally was a nurturing school that cared for and catered for the whole child, and he talked passionately about the benefits of the nurture group.
A nurture group generally caters for children who have just come into the primary school, who may be experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and who may be finding it difficult to cope with the new situation.
It will be a small group of no more than 12 children and there will be a specially trained teacher and an assistant.
The children remain part of their mainstream class, but they also spend a substantial part of the week in the nurture group. Some will stay for a term, but some may stay for a full year before moving back entirely into their mainstream class. The engagement with parents is also part of a successful nurture group.
The visit to Ballysally was the first time I had come across the concept of nurture groups, but I left the school convinced of the benefits of the organisations in ensuring that as many children as possible get the good start that they deserve.
Over the next few months I visited nurture groups in other schools, including Good Shepherd Primary School in west Belfast, and those visits confirmed to me that nurture groups can make a real difference, with improved wellbeing, improved achievement, improved attendance, improved behaviour and an improved teaching experience.
Nurture groups were originally developed in 1969 in London by an educational psychologist who saw that some children were entering school with severe social, emotional and behavioural needs.
Their success is such that there are now nurture groups in over 1,500 schools across the United Kingdom, and they offer the opportunity to "experience the early nurturing experiences some children lack, giving them the skills to do well at school, make friends and deal more confidently and calmly with the trials and tribulations of life, for life".
This lies within the remit of the Department of Education, but there had been a reluctance on its part to promote the groups. However, the Department for Social Development (DSD) has a responsibility for areas of disadvantage and had supported a number of nurture groups through DSD neighbourhood renewal funding.
I was determined that this intervention would be expanded, and my department was able to support the introduction of nurture groups and the provision of nurture rooms in a number of schools, including Currie Primary School and Rathcoole Primary School.
This intervention helped to convince the Department of Education of the benefit of nurture groups, and the two departments then co-operated in supporting more nurture groups through the Delivering Social Change programme.
There have been a lot of reports about educational underachievement, and reports have their place in providing some analysis.
However, what is really needed is a programme of actions and interventions to address the problem, and I have no doubt that nurture groups will have to be part of that programme.
Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee.