Van Gogh School: How nurture is transforming pupils’ lives

23 June 2023

A calm, positive, happy place where children and adults have high expectations of themselves and others and understand how to manage their emotions when life gets tough. Is this a magical land, or a vision of the distant future? No, it’s a school environment that exists here and now, in a deprived area of South London. 

This month I had the pleasure of spending time at Van Gogh Primary School in Stockwell. The school took part in our recent Nurturing London programme, funded by London’s Violence Reduction Unit. 

When you arrive at Van Gogh, the impact of nurture is immediately evident. From the warm and welcoming staff on the school gates who ensure children have been properly fed, to those checking in on children’s emotional states throughout the day – nurture permeates the school, filling every classroom, corridor and lesson plan. 

At Van Gogh, children are thriving and learning like never before, truly engaged in their education and enjoying positive relationships and play. 

This is an impressive turnaround for a school which in 2018 was forced to close its doors due to serious concerns about financial mismanagement and governance together with an inadequate Ofsted rating. 

The school became Van Gogh when it joined the Dunraven Educational Trust. The Trust has developed provision significantly since then and supported headteacher Nadine Bernard to create a truly flourishing school.

Nadine puts the huge improvement in pupils’ social, emotional and mental health, down to the nurturing journey the school has been on, building on the work of founding headteacher, Paul Robinson. As part of the Nurturing London programme, Van Gogh used nurtureuk’s Boxall Profile® to identify children’s needs. The school is still undergoing our National Nurturing Schools Programme, which is allowing it to embed nurture throughout the school culture. Staff also run nurture groups for children with a high level of need. 

Nadine and her team have focused strongly on building good relationships in school and the wider community. The Six Principles of Nurture are evident in all they do. Families feel part of the setting and communication with parents is strong. Teaching staff have also worked hard to ensure children can regulate themselves, and understand what is expected of them in school. Punishment and sanctions have been replaced with a focus on character development. 

Department for Education representatives joined me at the visit to Van Gogh and we were all bowled over by how calm and happy pupils were and how much they genuinely enjoyed learning. 

Nadine shared some impressive data on improvements in behaviour and attendance, and told powerful stories about the achievements of children who had suffered traumas including domestic violence, bereavement and separation from their loved ones. But the children, and the positive energy they exuded, showed us the results for themselves. 

This is what nurturing education looks like and what I believe should be the norm across all schools in the UK.

A recent report from the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition (CYPMHC) on Behaviour and Mental Health in Schools, revealed that sanction-based behaviour management techniques leave some young people feeling “worthless, invisible and disappointed in themselves,” and that these techniques led to them disliking school and experiencing increased feelings of anxiety.

Just walking into Van Gogh School, we could see that pupils and staff felt confident, heard, valued and really enjoyed being in school – pupils are truly ready and able to learn. 

Similarly to CYPMHC’S findings, a new report from the University of Cambridge’s Dr Laura Oxley – highlighted in TES magazine – claims that “the promotion of a ‘sanctions-based’ approach to managing behaviour in government guidance is contributing to an escalation of challenging activity and punitive responses in schools.” 

The report found that the sanctions-based approach is leading to worsening behaviour cultures, and goes on to warn that: “School leaders in England feel compelled to continue using a system of escalating punitive measures to manage student behaviour, even though they recognise that it fails some pupils.”

This needs to change. Teachers and schools need to feel confident and supported to use tried and tested approaches to manage behaviour in their schools that prioritise children’s wellbeing. Moving away from punitive approaches today will help to create the future young person we all want to see; confident, able, emotionally aware, happy individuals who are ambitious for themselves and others. We saw this in abundance at Van Gogh.

As one of the staff members said, the nurture approach works for staff and pupils because “it’s natural and normal.” I would love to see a future where this is being said in all schools across the country.

By Arti Sharma, CEO, nurtureuk