Setting up a secondary school nurture group

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
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Garry Freeman presents a short guide to the practicalities and key challenges of setting up a secondary nurture group

We’ve got some lads in year 8 who we’re having problems with. It’s their behaviour and attitude to lessons and teachers. Could you please have a think about whether there’s any work you can do with them?

And so this led to my encounter with the group of four students who would make up my first nurture group in a secondary boys’ comprehensive in Bradford.

I visited two other secondaries in Bradford with burgeoning nurture groups, identifying the best practice elements of each which I could adapt on the basis of my own experience and student needs.

Having established my first group with just four students, I showed with hard evidence that our approach had a whole-school positive impact, working increasingly with colleagues across the curriculum to cascade the core features of a nurture approach to all staff.

How can you build your nurture provision?

Nurture groups are an approach to inclusion designed to open up learning for children who are struggling for a variety of reasons. They usually take the form of a small discrete class, offering a safe, structured and predictable environment.

Essentially, there are four stages of setting up and developing a nurture group:

  • Identifying need.
  • Finding a name and an identity.
  • Identifying a way of working to suit your school.
  • Developing your version of the group.

Remember to articulate your nurture philosophy and practice in both your SEND policy and your SEND Information Report.
Identifying need

Progress depends on provision – which in turn depends on identifying need. You can’t really have a nurture group unless you can identify the need for one. It may seem rather obvious, but if you are going to assess and evidence the impact of your group, you must be clear what provision you will have – and therefore what needs the provision is intended to meet. Base plans on the following.

Any transition information you have is crucial. Ours told us that a small and growing number of students would need additional, different and alternative support to adjust to the expectations and culture of a high school.

Also key is effective identification of needs in the first instance. We work as partners with primaries on the basis that this should be done not solely on the basis of formal assessments but increasingly from closer and more regular meetings and conversations with parents.

The 2015 SEND Code of Practice sets out that we ought to be working with parents as equals – they know their child better than any professional. You should always remember the message of the Lamb Report of 2009, that treating parents as “partners with expertise in their children’s needs is crucial to establishing and sustaining confidence”.

It adds: “Where things go wrong, the root causes can often be traced to poor communication between school, local authority and parent.”
Equally: “In the most successful schools the effective engagement of parents has had a profound impact on children’s progress.” (Lamb Report)

And: “The knowledge and understanding that parents have about their children is key information that can help teachers and others to meet their child’s needs. Enabling parents to share their knowledge and engage in positive discussion instils confidence that their contribution is valued and acknowledged.” (SEND Code of Practice)

Involving parents at every stage of their child’s involvement in the school’s nurture group is also vital. Build parental confidence by making it clear that should the evidence at any point tell us that the child no longer needs the on-going support of nurture, then you will contact them to discuss the next stage in supporting their child’s learning and development.

Parents feel as assured by a structured exit strategy as they do by thought-through plans to support their child going into nurture in the first place. Aim to see each child progress from bespoke supported learning to independent learning within a differentiated, quality-first environment – from a supported normal way of working to an independent one.

Name and identity

This is another obvious step but one which sends a clear message of ethos and values. The choice of name needs to be simple and direct – the provision should do what it says on the can.

“Nurture group” for us reflects the holistic approach of the school and our desire to be a nurturing school rather than just a single-purpose group with little impact across the curriculum.

And focus on the positive: bringing out the very best of each person, supporting them to see what works well for them, believing and using self-advocacy and then understanding what could be even better if. To this end, staff leading the nurture provision need to be good communicators, not only to children and parents but also to other staff – teaching and non-teaching – across and beyond the school. Some suggestions:

  • Be pro-active: involve colleagues at every level and at every stage of your plans.
  • Meet with colleagues across the curriculum to promote and facilitate understanding of how a nurture approach can have a positive impact on both the learning of their students and on their work as professionals. Meet with them at the outset and at regular intervals.
  • Share strategies with your colleagues: how can understanding child development affect learning, how can difficulties be overcome and problems solved?
  • Invite your colleagues to visit, have an open-door policy and think about “open mornings” when your students can learn how to receive visitors, how to provide refreshments and show off their achievements.
  • How can you develop understanding and experience of a nurture philosophy among trainee teachers and other adult students?
  • Be prepared to work constructively with any doubters: a control group can be a useful way of tracking the impact of a nurture group on learning, comparing outcomes with similar students not in the group.
  • Be the consultant with an open door on how to differentiate – visibly and with impact – and how to innovate to meet the needs of a child: guide, coach and advise colleagues.
  • Be pro-active when it comes to advocacy for your students – and even better if you can successfully facilitate them to self-advocate in terms of their needs and meta-cognition. A self-written student passport is ideal for this – person-centred practice in action.

Identify a way of working

Every nurture group, particularly in high schools, is different in terms of how it works. Decisions on this are instrumental in building parental and staff confidence in your group: clarity and transparency are crucial, as is the flexibility to adapt your provision within a framework which responds to ever-changing need.

Your approach will be a cornerstone to the partnership element of your group and so always remember that your way of working, your model of provision, will need to adapt each time you have a new intake of students because their needs will be slightly different.

The key questions you should ask

  • What should the pattern of attendance for the group be? When do they attend?
  • Should being in the nurture group be full-time until each individual is able to re-engage with the full range of learning opportunities across the curriculum? What are the pros and cons of this for each of your students?
  • Should students be in the group for a fixed time so that you can be sure that skills are embedded?
  • Is there provision for students to leave or join the group according to need?
  • Should there be a maximum size of the group? If so, what is your rationale for this?
  • Can you build a provision which is subject-based and is this appropriate for your students’ needs?
  • Who leads, has responsibility for and delivers nurture lessons: teaching staff, higher-level teaching assistants?
  • In this respect, how can you make best use of the subject background and experience of your nurture group staff? This can be reflected in your programme of study and schemes of work.
  • How far do you need to use SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) approaches? Discreetly or discretely?
  • What does the room need to look like? Indeed, how will you articulate that you need a base room?
  • What rules – or guardrails – do you need and how do you communicate them?

Key features to bear in mind

  • Rules of the room ideally need to be few and simple. They work better if everyone in a nurture room, including visitors, can see that the rules apply to them – not just to students. Rules or expectations need to be printed and displayed using a large, clear font and at eye-level.
  • Your room should be large enough to enable flexible working methods: how you set out your room, possibly moving things around regularly, is an excellent and visible means of differentiation.
  • Your room should be welcoming, reflecting the needs and the achievements of your students. Displays of work promote ownership, meta-cognitive thinking and remind students of your belief in them – that you and the whole-school are proud to see their work displayed for everyone to see.

Develop your version of nurture groups

Your nurture group philosophy will almost certainly remain the same. However, your practice will need to develop as you respond to the changing needs of your students, both on entry to the group and as they move through their key stage.

Annotate your programme of study and schemes of work, not just for senior colleagues and Ofsted where appropriate, but more for your own thought processes in how the nurture course can progress over time to meet needs. Reflective marking and DIRT (dedicated improvement, reflection and thinking) time can inform how your provision should develop.

Be pro-active in receiving feedback from mainstream colleagues on the impact of your nurture group across the curriculum.

Be open to constructive criticism and encourage colleagues to ask for certain concepts or vocabulary to be pre-taught; this is an excellent way of embedding the ethos that nurture provision is whole-school.

Enjoy what you do in nurture and remember the words of Albert Einstein: “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think!”

Further information

  • Nurture Groups: A handbook for schools, Welsh Assembly Government, November 2010:
  • Lamb Inquiry: Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence, Department for Children, Schools and Families, April 2009:
  • SEND Code of Practice, DfE, June 2014 (updated May 2015):


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