Building the evidence base for nurture: key areas to consider

23 November 2018 - Dr Florence Ruby

Over the years, research on nurture in education has made great progress and has generated more evidence than ever around nurture practice and nurture groups. However, despite the increase in literature surrounding nurture in education, several areas of research remain unexplored and would benefit from being investigated in more detail.

We have summarised below different topics that we believe would benefit from having a stronger evidence base. Nurtureuk is keen to provide support to researchers and students working in the area of nurture.

You are welcome to contact nurtureuk to discuss the different topics and identify how research projects could be built around them. Please get in touch with Dr Florence Ruby via email at

  1. Evaluating the whole school nurturing approach

In recent years nurtureuk has moved towards a graduated approach to nurture, making the whole-school nurturing approach an increasingly important component of our work. However more evidence is needed to support the whole-school nurturing approach. Many case studies have shown the positive impact a nurturing approach can have on the atmosphere and wellbeing of children, but more robust evidence needs to be generated to better understand the best practices and processes that allow the intervention to be effective, as well as the overall impact across the school.

  1. A large-scale randomised control trial

Randomised control trials are seen as the ‘gold standard’ for research on interventions but are currently missing in the area of nurture. An example of an RCT would be a project where pupils are randomly allocated (rather than being allocated on the basis of perceived need) to be part of a nurture group with each nurture group having an equivalent control group where nurture principles are not used. This would test the effectiveness of nurture groups by looking at the impact of the nurture group on the emotional and, particularly the academic, attainment of pupils. The ethical issues implicit in such a trial can be avoided by guaranteeing that the intervention, if successful, would also be offered to the control groups at a later stage.

  1. Longitudinal studies

Many studies have evaluated the impact of nurture over a few terms, but have not explored the long-term outcomes of the interventions. Do children in nurture groups have social emotional skills and learning outcomes a year / two years / five years later? Demonstrating that children who attend nurture groups learn essential skills that will benefit them throughout their education and later in life will strongly reinforce nurture’s evidence base. Another important area would be looking at the long-term impact of nurture on exclusions and attendance.

  1. Nurture groups for children with special educational needs

Researching the suitability of nurture groups for children with specific special educational needs such as autism and ADHD. More studies need to investigate the impact a nurturing intervention can have on children with special needs. How can nurturing approaches be adapted to better suit the needs of these children? How are Boxall Profile data impacted by special needs? A few research projects have started to look at the differences that may exist regarding the impact of nurture on children with SEN but more needs to be done to shape our recommendations in this area. 

  1. Secondary school nurture groups

Nurtureuk is committed to support the work our colleague Dr David Colley at Oxford Brookes University who is currently undertaking research on secondary school nurture groups. David and others are in particular interested in investigating the role nurture groups can have in secondary schools and what would a model of best practice look like in secondary settings. 

  1. The impact of nurture on families

Children coming to nurture may make progress while being in school, but frequently go back home to difficult environments. How can nurture practitioners best engage with parents and care takers to ensure that what is learnt in the nurture group is also encouraged at home? What barriers may exist between families and schools that could prevent a nurture intervention from being effective? Many nurture groups are already doing great work to engage and work with parents, but little evidence on best practice is currently available to guide practitioners in this area. 

  1. Reflections on nurture group participation

We currently do not hold any data from adults who have previously attended nurture groups as children or young people. It would be useful to interview previous nurture pupils and investigate what impact nurture has had on their lives, but also what their experience of being part of a nurture group was. 

  1. Nurturing language

The language used in nurture groups is distinctive from the language used in the mainstream classroom or school. What kinds of processes and language separate very effective use of nurture from less effective use nurture? Given that language has been identified as being central to nurture practice in the very best settings, exactly what kinds of language are we looking at and how do they differ from language that may not be so supportive of nurture, including body language that may contradict the words being used? This would involve discourse analysis of the actual language that takes place in nurture groups or in nurturing classrooms

  1. Consequences of nurture on cognitive skills (e.g. working memory, attention, memory, etc.).

Nurture is expected to have an impact on social emotional skills, academic attainment and wellbeing. However, no research has investigated its impact on cognitive skills, including working memory and attention.

  1. A large-scale review of all published research

An up-to-date large-scale review would be needed to establish the effectiveness and impact of initiatives broadly relating to nurture on the emotional health and wellbeing of children and young people. This would provide a meta-analysis based on small and larger research studies.