We know that a nurturing approach can have an incredible effect on the lives of children and young people, and we love to hear about the real-life impact it has in the schools we work with. The following case study is from a school on our Violence Reduction Unit Programme.
I stumbled into the academic year with low expectations of doing anything other than closing Covid gaps, tackling mental health issues and making a saddening number of referrals to Social Services. Then, I accidentally joined a network meeting of professionals working to reduce serious youth violence in my area; a spark was lit.
These virtual monthly meetings gave me insight into what was happening with young people in my area, and I started to make connections with people and services I’d never heard of before. I was plodding along in my role feeling more informed and able to support some of our most vulnerable. But feeling that way is never really enough, is it?
I shared my learning with colleagues and we took part in county lines training; we started to bang the same drum and our voices were being heard. But I was still frustrated that the best I could offer families was a referral for support (often declined), a listening ear for parents, and a walk around the field with students venting about how they were facing another exclusion. Knowing our stuff was one thing, but listening to a child tell us he smoked weed because ‘what else is there to do in this town, Miss?’ made me feel impotent and so very sad.
That was until one of my partners at the Serious Youth Violence Team asked me if I had heard of nurtureuk.
It was one of those moments where things somehow all came together at the perfect time; a fully-funded place had come up for a school in my area on nurtureuk’s project with the Violence Reduction Unit. The programme worked with schools where the cohort were at risk of exploitation, involved in the criminal system, and had high disengagement.
The spark that was lit before now had petrol liberally poured all over it. I was desperate to be part of the project, and several pleading emails to our leadership later, we were in.
Every training session I attended gave me ideas and inspiration. I knew our kids, I knew how adverse their backgrounds were and I knew this would make a difference for them. Our team started attending every available training session, and our pastoral team who have been fighting fires for years, finally saw something we felt could help our families.
We started to roll out information to staff ready to introduce the nurture principles in the new academic year. So many of our staff were naturally nurturing and had excellent relationships with our children. We were already doing so much of what we had learned, but the programme gave us structure and a clear path forward to become a whole nurturing school, not just one where most staff nurture through the nature of their personalities.
However, this did nothing for those already on the fringes. I hated to think what would happen to them. For two of them, Young Offenders’ Institution was looking likely before the end of the academic year. Some of these children had been under my pastoral care since Year 7 and were now in Year 10; I knew their parents, and spoke to them more than my own parents most weeks. I knew their Early Help workers, their drug and alcohol abuse workers and what they were scared of. I also knew I couldn’t offer them anything better than those who had them carrying out retribution fights and running drugs could offer them. Why would they trust us? We had excluded their friends or sent them elsewhere as we could no longer manage them in school. They were angry, defiant, violent, lost; and I wanted to save them all. I felt that hopeless feeling creeping in again, like I had all the ideas but I had missed my chance.
During the nurture training, we learned about the concept of nurture groups. I presented them as a wildcard proposal to our leadership team – I wanted to completely rebrand our current alternative provision and use it as a Key Stage 4 nurture group. I suggested changing our current internal exclusion provision from a punitive cubicle nightmare that David Brent would have been proud of, into a transient nurture room. I didn’t hold out high hopes, I just wanted recognition that the need I was raising was also seen by others, and that maybe it would be considered for post-Covid world with new priorities. Two days later I got called to the Head’s office where I was offered everything I’d asked for and more.
The first thing I did was complete a Boxall Profile® for ‘Boy A’. He was the first child that made me recognise the impact that having just one person in your corner could do for you. He came to me in Year 7 labelled “naughty with difficult parents”, and by Year 10 he had an EHCP for his severe learning needs, which he had masked by being popular, and I had an incredible relationship with his parents. He was facing exclusion for his defiance and violent behaviour, and was far too well known to the police. Having taught this boy too, I had no rose tinted glasses on when it came to his behaviour! I completed his Boxall Profile® and cried when I read his results. I wanted him in my new provision, and he joined the following week.
I was keen to quickly show that the best way to engage with our most challenging young people was to nurture them. I was granted permission to take my new nurture group and three others with a similar reputation off site for a two day gardening project at our local primary school.
Every child I teach could exceed their flightpath, and that still wouldn’t come close to making me as proud as I was at the end of those two days. Each and every one flung themselves into it, working together as a team, taking turns, and supporting each other. I didn’t see a single phone or headphone all day, which with our lot is a genuine measure of success, until the end of the day when they took pictures to show their mums. There aren’t any words to adequately express how that made me feel.
Mr X, one of our naturally nurturing teachers that our most challenging young people adore, and I worked alongside them; sometimes quietly, sometimes putting the world to rights with them. One boy, who had the highest rate for exits from lessons in his year, told me that all plants have faces and how I should plant them. The solitary girl of the group, who had always been very reserved as she worked through her own issues with ADHD medication and the grief of losing family members, spent the break chatting with all the boys for the first time.
As we packed away, all the young people thanked us individually. The parents emailed us to thank us. The primary school children came out and our young people glowed with pride showing off their flowers. I glowed watching them. I could tell this was the start of something wonderful.
I sent an email to staff bragging about how amazing my team of ‘delinquents’ were; a part of me wanted to show some of their teachers they were wrong. These young people were brilliant, wonderful, and misunderstood. I have since heard staff telling them they have heard all about their good work and praising them, which for this group is a huge deal.
So what’s next?
We gathered serious momentum in such a short space of time. The new academic year looms and I can’t wait to see what it holds. We weighed up the benefits of getting a class rat – they hated the idea. We discussed how they will paint their new classroom, and what project they would like next (bird boxes got the final vote). We spoke about how we can support them in moving away from their gang outside of school (“Miss, we’re a group not a gang, police can’t get you for being in a group”). I have a huge sheet of paper with plans, and an extremely supportive leadership team allowing us almost free reign to meet these needs as we see fit.
Our next challenge is convincing all staff that yes, we can offer tea and talking to students rather than silent working and a pound of flesh for misbehaviour. We need them to see behaviour as communication, not just a nuisance. We need to plan how to ensure Ofsted will like what we do, and that we are still measuring successes each term. We need to work out how we will have subject specialists work with the children still. I need to work out how my boy with an enforced ankle bracelet will join us for off site activities.
It will no doubt be challenging, but for the first time I feel I am at the start of being able to actually do something to help them, and it’s so exciting. We planted our own seeds, we’ve started the watering process, and I can’t wait to see them bloom.