Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Nurture Provision

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 15th November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 12:00 pm, 15th November 2016

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. Two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, so 15 minutes have been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to wind. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to wind. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive. If amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly welcomes the report by the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation at Queen’s University Belfast, entitled 'The Impact and Cost Effectiveness of Nurture Groups in Primary Schools in Northern Ireland'; welcomes the commitment of the Minister of Education to continuing to fund the 32 nurture units across Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Education to examine potential options to mainstream nurture provision within the current education budget.

This Assembly is supposed to be based on the core principle of inclusion. It should reach out to the citizens of Northern Ireland, particularly those who are marginalised for a variety of reasons, including social, emotional, financial and educational issues. We have to use our energy, efforts and resources to ensure that all are included in the rich and varied fabric of our society. We have to remove any barriers to learning that may exist in our schools to ensure that all children are valued equally and given the opportunity to achieve their potential and contribute to our community.

I commend the staff of Queen's University for producing such an excellent report on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of nurture group provision in Northern Ireland. It would be difficult not to recommend funding for the implementation of nurture groups when one reads the report in detail and takes account of the views of those involved in the study. The challenge surely is that we have to search for funding from a variety of sources to provide the necessary funds to implement the nurture provision.

In addition to reading the report, I took account of the views of teachers and others involved in providing and managing a nurture room in a school. Short-term expenditure of approximately £50,000 per school — for a teacher, classroom assistant and resources, that is — at an early stage to maximise on early intervention will yield dividends later while the child is at school and, in some cases, post-education at 16 years of age. The cost-effective figures are included in the report and merit careful consideration and study. Long-term savings on a child with a conduct disorder can range from £12,000 to £150,000 later in life. A stitch in time not only saves public funds but gives a child and family hope for the future. I feel that the real test of any provision is, of course, the views of those who are tasked with using it, those who implement it and those who benefit from it.

The following is a brief summary of comments from teachers involved in a nurture room:

"Our entire school has benefited greatly from the nurture room — we can see improved attendance and confidence amongst the children; Children who return from the nurture room to their class full time are more settled to learn and can cope better with class work; There are better relationships between the nurture children and their peers; Children in the nurture room have more time to work their emotions in a small group and work at their own pace, and are then equipped to use these strategies when they return to class; As a school, there has been a significant strengthening of relationships between staff and parents, especially those parents who might have initially been reluctant to approach staff; The nurture approach has been fully embraced by the entire school community — children are accepted at their level of understanding and development; Staff take a flexible approach to dealing with behaviour — they look at the needs of the child rather than react; The school works to build up the confidence of parents, encourage them and reassure them that they are doing all they can; The nurture room itself is accessible to all children and can be used for children who are having trouble settling in the mornings or who just need a quiet space for a time; Older children would benefit from the nurture room and should be included; The nurture room intervention also has reduced the amount of referrals made to the behavioural team; The nurture room's small group settings also help staff to more closely identify the children's needs; emotional, educational and social."

Those are quotations from some principals and schools that we have taken into consideration. I think that everyone will agree that they are all exceptionally positive and send out a good message. Those who work at the coalface, as the saying is, see the direct benefits and how it benefits the school, the child and, indeed, the parents. Consider the impact and benefits that a nurture room could have on children with emotional and social problems who may be disruptive and upsetting for the entire class, with the additional work and stress placed on teachers and the worry and anxiety of parents at the prospect of their child being suspended from school.

I commend the report to the Assembly and recommend that funds be found from a variety of sources to mainstream nurture provision in schools. The benefits are clearly outlined in the report. It is essential that we, the Members of the Assembly, do all that we can to include all the children who may be marginalised. The report should be commended; it should be read by all Members of the Assembly. I believe that they will come to the same conclusion as those of us who tabled the motion: it is work well done, and it augurs well for directing, assisting and helping with nurture provision in schools in the future.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out all after the second "Northern Ireland;" and insert "recognises the role effective early years interventions can play in reducing the need for nurture units; and calls on the Minister of Education to examine potential options to develop universal early years education provision.".

I am fully supportive of the motion; my amendment seeks to complement it rather than in any way detract from its intention. Just yesterday, DUP councillor Peter Martin, a North Down colleague of mine, spoke in the 'News Letter' about the importance of early years. He highlighted the benefits that something as simple as reading to a two-year-old child can have if done on a regular basis. I hope that we can agree on the steps that need to be taken, even if there is slightly different wording across the motion and the two amendments.

The intent of my amendment is to say that, before we expand the ground floor, we have to get the foundations right. The Queen's University report is clear: nurture units work. They are effective and are an important part of the work that we do with children. However, the reality is that we have limited resources. We know that investment in early years will, on the one hand, enhance the work of nurture units but may also, if done effectively, reduce the need for them. For me, it is more about where we start. I think that we can potentially agree on where we finish. It is more about starting earlier and making that earlier intervention.

As my colleague Clare Bailey put it when we were discussing the motion, we should get children ready for school before they start school rather than, as we sometimes do, trying to help them to catch up when they start school behind their peers. We should, as much as possible, ensure that no child starts school before they are ready. Whilst it is another debate for another day, flexible school starting age could contribute to the issues that we are trying to address today.

As well as the Queen's University report on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of nurture units, we have ample evidence of the benefits of early years provision. Professor Heckman highlighted the pure economics of early years intervention: £1 spent in early years can save up to £9 in later interventions. I come back to the point that I made earlier: investment in early years has the potential to reduce the need for nurture provision, although it will not negate it entirely.

Dr Suzanne Zeedyk has highlighted in her research the importance of the brain development of a child in those early years, particularly from nought to three. Her work shows the harm done by not intervening in those early years. The disadvantage that can be caused through a lack of proper stimulation, love and care in early years can be very difficult to reverse later. Again, it is a question of getting it right at the early stages rather than trying to undo any harm that has already taken place.

It is unclear from the motion — I look forward to hearing from others — what we mean by "mainstreaming". Do we mean nurture units in every school? Are we talking about a universal service in that regard? If I make that assumption —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I think that we all want to see an expansion. I appreciate that there may be a bit of difference in terms of the wording of amendments etc.

Nurture units are funded under a particular programme that is time-limited and separate from the main education budget. When we talk about "mainstreaming", we mean taking that into the main education budget and having something permanent.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 12:15 pm, 15th November 2016

I appreciate the Minister's intervention, which is constructive and certainly helps me in my thinking. It is about getting the right services in the right places. The security that mainstreaming would give to nurture units is welcome.

With regard to the evidence, Professor Heckman and Suzanne Zeedyk have both spoken at Stormont, and a number of Members attended. I note that Simon Hamilton, through Assembly questions, raised the importance of early investment with the former Education Minister. When Roy Beggs was chair of the all-party group on children and young people, he was a great champion of early years investment.

We often put a lot of focus on our schools, which are a vital part of a child's life and, to a large extent, help to shape their future development. Sometimes, however, we put too much emphasis on what schools can do. They are somehow required to do everything, and we almost forget about the child outside the school. Early years is not just about supporting educational development but about supporting the child in the context of the family and the family in the context of the community.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that children often find themselves in nurture units because the family unit has broken down in some way or they are not getting adequate provision outside the school setting and that, to all intents and purposes, the school setting is one of the better places to give security to those children?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member and partially agree that that is often where the problems arise. It emphasises my point about needing to work with families and communities. If we work with a child in school, we put the onus on that child to go back to potentially difficult family circumstances, almost to hold their hand. In supporting the family, we support the child, which is why my amendment specifically asks for universal early years services. The evidence is that we try to target families in particular need, which can add stigma and a reluctance to engage. If we have universal services, families can opt out rather than having to opt in. The evidence across Scandinavia is that universal service means that children do not fall through the gaps to the same extent, and Scotland is adopting that model. As I said, families who do not need the support can opt out rather than always trying to get families who need the support to opt in.

This is, of course, an issue for Health and Education, and the Minister is well aware of his duty to work with other Ministers. We are discussing education today, but I ask the Minister to remember that, whilst his title is Minister of Education, he is, effectively, the Minister for children with responsibility for the childcare strategy. It is about looking at children not just in our school systems but in our community and throughout their early years before they even have contact with the formal education system.

I welcome the debate and the focus that it brings to tackling educational underachievement. I hope that we can agree not only on the end point but on some of the starting points that we need. I will say it again: if we invest in the family, we invest in the child, and we need to look at the child as part of a family unit.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move amendment No 2:

Leave out all after the second "Northern Ireland;" and insert "and, as recommended in the report by Queen’s University, calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that a sustainable funding model is put in place for the longer-term viability of nurture group provision, to plan the further expansion of nurture provision in each primary school sector targeted in the areas of greatest need, to develop appropriate training for staff and to conduct research into models for the delivery of nurture provision.".

I hope that we receive cross-party support for our amendment. I will speak to our amendment in a moment, but, first, I want to say that I am glad that we are getting the opportunity to discuss the motion. It is primarily based on the Queen's University report on nurture group provision, which, I have to say, makes for very positive reading. I welcome the fact that we are today taking the opportunity in the Chamber to discuss an issue not only that we all support but that research has proven is working for our children.

The report highlights the positive impact that nurture provision has had on our children:

"They represent a short-term and focused intervention to address barriers to learning arising from unmet attachment needs."

I welcome the fact that we have this option for children who have difficulties coping in mainstream classes. Although there are only 32 nurture groups in schools across Northern Ireland, there is no denying their success. They are a prime example of how early intervention works and how outcomes for our children are improved. The study found that nurture groups led to significant improvements in social, emotional and behavioural outcomes among children who previously had difficulty learning in a mainstream class.

I welcome the comments that the Minister has made previously on nurture groups:

"One of the clear indications is that intervention has been of tremendous value to children, particularly to some vulnerable children and those who need that degree of help." — [Official Report (Hansard), 27 September 2016, p32, col 2].

The Minister is right on the money there, but it should also be highlighted that the value of nurture provision goes further, as the report tells us:

"Nurture support is not limited to the nurture group, as all schools will embed the nurturing principles and practice at a whole school level, providing appropriate support for all pupils attending the school."

There are repercussions from having those units in schools, and they spread around the whole school environment, providing a cascading effect of the benefit.

I also welcome the findings in the report that state that nurture groups are cost-effective, costing around £70,000 per school, and have the potential to result in significant savings further down the education system. Let us not ignore the correlation between underachievement and other elements of society further down the line. A small investment at school age could provide a greater saving to society many years later.

Our amendment has two strands. The first part comes directly from recommendation 10 in the Queen's University report:

"The importance of providing a consistent funding framework to ensure that schools are able to develop Nurture Group provision and plan effectively."

The motion mentions the need:

"to examine potential options to mainstream nurture provision within the current education budget."

We believe that the funding model for nurture units should be sustainable to ensure their long-term viability. We have seen the benefits that nurture units have given to us, but they currently cover only 32 schools. We want to see it widened, and the only way in which we feel that that can be done is to ensure that a sustainable funding model is put in place.

The second part of our amendment calls on the Minister to:

"plan the further expansion of nurture provision in each primary school sector".

We have seen and heard examples of funding not being given to certain sectors. For example, when he was Minister, Mr O'Dowd announced funding for a pilot for nurture units for schools in the Irish-medium sector, and Minister Weir then said that, owing to funding pressures, he could not provide funding for that pilot. The Queen's report recommends:

"Until further research is available on the effectiveness of different models of delivery, it would be wise for the Department of Education to continue to target the provision of Nurture Groups in schools in the most deprived areas".

That should be done regardless of the sector that it is in. I speak —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I put it on record that there were indications given at that stage that there was additional funding provided by the Department of Finance. Those schools are funded as part of that, so it crosses the various sectors.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his intervention. What we are talking about here is the planned intervention across all sectors. When it becomes reactionary because of budgetary pressures, we must not rob money from particular sectors but keep it right across.

I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendation from Queen's that research should be undertaken to ensure that there are models for the delivery of nurture provision, but until that is done we believe that it should be targeted at the areas of greatest need. If we do not give our children the best start in life, we do them an enormous disservice. What is great about the motion is that it extends to children who need help the most the opportunity to avail themselves of services that will aid their education. The Assembly should be about delivering for children in Northern Ireland and giving them a better start in life. I commend our amendment, the other amendment, and the motion so that our children can be given a start in this process.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate. It is the second education debate today, and it is very good to see, given the contributions so far, that the motions seem to be almost knitting together. We support the motion, and we have no difficulty with either amendment.

Nurture units are of great benefit to young children when they are going through a difficult period, for whatever reason, in their young lives and need a wee bit of extra help and support. I remember my first visit 10 years ago to a nurture unit in my constituency. The setting surprised me because it was very similar to a home environment. The children at that unit received one-to-one help from teachers, classroom assistants and other staff. For me, it was clear that they were not just getting help in going back to the classroom but were also being helped to go back to the family home, which was very important. A lot of parents said very positive things about it. At that time, not too many schools had nurture units. I am glad to see that, through the Delivering Social Change signature projects and other sources of funding, there are now 32 units throughout the North. I hope that, as the motion says, that provision can be mainstreamed in future.

Everybody has to commend the great work that the staff and teachers do with the young children in the units. Talking to teachers and staff, I know that our children often have to face really big challenges in their lives that no child should have to face. Those challenges can have an impact on their emotional well-being and can affect their personal development and, of course, their education. That is what these nurture units are intended to do: give children a bit of support and help to go back to the classroom.

The time taken by teachers and staff to help a vulnerable child through a difficult period with one-to-one support not only helps the child but can also be beneficial for parents and the whole family setting. I have spoken to people whose young children have attended a nurture unit after losing a mother or a father in tragic circumstances and they have told me that the whole family unit has been helped. Maybe they have had brothers or sisters at the same school, and the unit has been beneficial for those children to sit in that home environment to try to come to terms with the great sense of loss that they have had and then go back to the family home to help the remaining parent. While we might view it here mainly in an educational capacity, there is a wider benefit when those children go back into the family home.

Early intervention programmes, such as the services provided by nurture units, are known to work and all the evidence points to them working. Other Members mentioned the evaluation carried out by Queen's University that provided clear evidence of their benefits. It also highlights the difference between children who have received support compared with those who have not because the support was not available in their school. The report goes on to say that nurture groups were very cost-effective; we know that and we have all seen it. We have taken part in debates, but we have seen with our own eyes that early intervention programmes save Departments money in the longer term. When you invest early, particularly in young children and in supporting families, you will see long-term benefits over the years in education, health, social and family issues.

Over the years, we have had many debates in the Chamber in which it was very clear that intervening early in a child's life, when a vulnerability or difficulty is identified, can have a long-term impact on their lifetime opportunities. Nurture groups provide a short-term and focused intervention for children experiencing difficulties in the class for a number of reasons. They also provide that link, as I said, between home life and school which helps children settle into class again.

Children, particularly those from deprived communities or from a family with social and emotional difficulties or, indeed, financial difficulties —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 12:30 pm, 15th November 2016

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

— are the ones who will benefit quite a lot from these nurture provisions. I support the motion.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the proposers of the motion for bringing it to the Floor of the House. As Ulster Unionist education spokesperson, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate.

Nurture units have become a widespread feature of education provision across the UK, with an estimated 1,500 currently in operation. This is a targeted programme, as Members have already said, aimed at pupils who, for a variety of reasons, have difficulties in mainstream classes, fail to engage in the learning process and may otherwise be at risk of underachievement.

Early intervention is always the most valuable and as nurture units usually target pupils in Key Stage 1 they have an impact at an early stage of a child's development. They take pupils out of their mainstream class setting, usually for between two and four terms, and then return them to their mainstream class on a full-time basis.

The primary aim of nurture groups in Northern Ireland has been to improve the social, emotional and behavioural skills of children from deprived areas who are exhibiting significant difficulties. The evaluation by Queen's University Belfast found that nurture group provision was highly successful in meeting this aim. It is always great to hear that investment in our children is actually having an impact, and that it is not something to be taken lightly.

As with all things, there is, of course, a price tag for nurture groups and, under the current framework, that sits at around £70,000 per school involved. However, the cost-effectiveness of the nurture provision programmes is well documented in the report, and shows the real value that can be placed on early intervention, not just in monetary terms but in the life of the child and their progression through primary education into post-primary schools and beyond. Teachers saw improvements in punctuality, increased attendance and significant reductions in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Children felt more involved in their classes and were beginning to find school more enjoyable.

While nurture groups are widespread in the UK, they are still in their infancy and there are still aspects of the scheme that could be improved. For example, some evidence showed that greater progress was being made by those who were not eligible for free school meals than by those who were. It would be interesting to understand why that was the case. The original criterion for the allocation of signature project funding targeted schools with an above-average proportion of pupils who were eligible for free school meals. It would be a concern if those children were less likely to receive the benefits of the project. Perhaps adaptations can be made to ensure maximum effect in the future, and I urge the Education Minister to consider further research in that area.

A new nurture room is being officially opened this Friday in Castledawson Primary School, which is in my constituency of Mid Ulster. It received no additional funding from the Department of Education, but the principal and board of governors there obviously felt the need to invest in teacher training for such a part-time provision at their school. It is available to children on Mondays and Fridays and its aim is to support the social, emotional and behavioural aspect of children in need from P3 to P5. They can aim the provision to where it is most needed and for as long as necessary. This flexibility works for Castledawson Primary School, and it is receiving very positive feedback.

There were limits to the research carried out by Queen's University Belfast, and it recommended further research involving a proper randomised control trial design and further research with a larger sample size into the effects of the different models of provision.

The evaluation report from the Education and Training Inspectorate, published in February this year, also had additional recommendations for improvement, many of which could be explored.

For those reasons, we will support the SDLP amendment, as I do not believe that nurture groups as currently delivered could be described as a finished product, although I do not want to use a consumerism term. I believe, therefore, that the SDLP amendment provides a better way forward and can allow for mainstreaming once a clearer way forward has been established. I highly commend the amendment tabled by Steven Agnew MLA, and I thank him for it. However, I urge him to bring forward the amendment as a motion in its own right, and we could maybe support it at that stage.

In my opinion, the mainstreaming of nurture units and examining the potential of universal early years education provision are not mutually exclusive; indeed, a combination of both would provide a comprehensive support system to children across the UK. For now, I feel that —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I will, indeed.

I feel that sticking to the issue of nurture units would be wiser. Therefore, we will vote against amendment No 1.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of nurture units. The short-term, focused intervention for children with particular social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in small groups of six to 10 children, usually from years 1 to 3, led by a teacher and classroom assistant across around 32 schools in Northern Ireland is having a positive impact on pupils, staff and parents and, of course, across the wider school community.

The Queen's University evaluation report has identified a 57% reduction in the number of children exhibiting behavioural challenges when placed in a nurture unit compared with the normal school setting. Pupils are feeling more confident in school and are reporting as enjoying school much more as a result of the nurture units. Also, in cases of children with special educational needs, one in five participating in a nurture unit showed particular improvement.

The Queen's report has found that nurture units are not only beneficial for children but cost-effective. It has found that it will cost at least twice as much to provide a pupil with behavioural difficulties with just one of the many additional resources available between years 3 to 12 as it would to address those needs through early intervention nurture unit provision in years 1 to 3. The costs for the family and educational and social services are significant, and they can be mitigated by that intervention.

There are, however, some issues raised by the Queen's evaluation report that, I believe, are a good reason to support the call for further research into the area. Whilst children participating in nurture units reported increased confidence in school and reduced behavioural challenges, the findings were not the same for an immediate improvement in numeracy and literacy skills. The Queen's report suggests, however, that it should be possible, with further research, to identify improvements in academic attainment in the medium to long term for pupils who have benefited from nurture units and achieved greater confidence and enjoyment in school. I, therefore, support the call for further research into the sustained impact on attendance and academic attainment as well as addressing behavioural challenges.

The report also recommends that nurture unit provision be targeted in the most deprived areas, and that appears to be a main thrust of the SDLP amendment. However, the ETI evaluation on nurture units takes a different view, calling for the roll-out of nurture units beyond areas of social and economic disadvantage and noting that nurturing needs are increasingly evident in all schools. I think that there is merit in the wider SDLP amendment, so we will not vote against it today. However, the Alliance Party believes that, in the context of scarce resource, nurture unit provision should be a targeted intervention for the pupil and child most in need of nurture support.

We also believe that nurture units must be part of a wider model of early intervention. The Green Party amendment rightly identifies the need for that approach; indeed, research clearly suggests that, as early as the age of two, there can as much as a six-month gap in language-processing skills between children from advantaged backgrounds and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. The ETI chief inspector's report published in 2014 identified the importance of investment in early years health, childcare and education in supporting school readiness and achievement among our children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am content to support the motion. I have no difficulty with either amendment. There is merit in all the content that has been put forward and, indeed, the contributions. I suggest, however, that it would be good to hear —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

— from the Minister about from where in the education budget the resources will be taken to make the further investments.

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

It is a privilege for me to highlight my support for nurture units. As has been said, they provide a short-term, focused intervention for children with particular social, emotional and behavioural difficulties that create barriers to learning in mainstream classes. It is a targeted programme aimed at pupils who fail to engage in the learning process and may otherwise be at risk of underachievement, leading to SEN support or the need for education outside of the school setting.

Analysis of the data gathered on the 529 children who had previously attended nurture groups showed that, on average, they had made consistently large improvements in social, emotional and behavioural development. Just a few weeks ago, I asked the Minister in an Assembly question to give me his assessment of the Queen's University nurture unit evaluation report, and I was delighted to hear that one of the clear indicators is that intervention has been of tremendous value to children, particularly to some children who are vulnerable and those who need that help.

Another thing that came across clearly from the report was that, even though only a limited number of children are directly involved in a unit, intervention through nurture units in schools creates a whole-school improvement, and children across the board get that. That is why, ideally, we should look at expanding the nurture group provision. Again, I was delighted to hear the Minister's insight that there is a strong desire to see an expansion if possible. Of course, he has urged caution, as we know that there are budgetary pressures from all angles. However, despite the initial budgetary strain that they will exert, as has been said, nurture units have proven to be cost-effective. The estimated cost per year of reducing one child who is defined as having behavioural difficulties to within the normal range is just less than £13,000. The cost of a pupil with behavioural difficulties being provided with just one of the many additional resources during the school term between year 3 and year 12 will be at least twice as much to the education system as it would be by addressing those difficulties through effective nurture group provision before the start of year 3. It is considerably higher again if the child has to avail himself or herself of alternative full-time education provision and/or attend a special school. Existing evidence suggests that investment in nurture group provision is likely to pay for itself after just two years. It is therefore cost-effective and represents a significant economic return to society, along with the benefits that it brings to the child and their family.

The schools that were most effective at nurturing had a clearly defined, positive but firm approach to the way in which they spoke to pupils. They gave them clear boundaries, praised them for their efforts and achievements, ensured that they made academic progress and worked with their parents, who are, of course, children's first educators. They saw pupils as individuals and dealt with them as such — each individual is different in their circumstances and difficulties. Nurture groups gave parents practical support — that is very important — including strategies that they could use at home with their children. Parents felt more confident about being able to help their children and valued the nurture groups more highly.

As Chris Lyttle pointed out, there are some concerns that literacy and numeracy targets were not achieved in certain nurture groups. That is something that I hope will be addressed as they continue to develop. Let us be clear: children who are more well-rounded emotionally, behaviourally and socially will be more willing to dedicate themselves to learning in school.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

From a party political perspective, Sinn Féin's position is that it will support the motion and the SDLP amendment.

In my capacity as Cathaoirleach — Chair — of the Education Committee, I want to make a few remarks about our interest as a Statutory Committee in this matter to date. Nurture is a focused, school-based intervention, usually in primary schools, designed to address barriers to learning arising from unmet attachment needs. Nurture units provide a carefully planned safe environment in which to build an attachment relationship with a consistent and reliable adult. A small group of selected children spend the majority of the school week in the nurture unit receiving highly structured and supported learning experiences.

Our Committee saw evidence of something similar to this in action on a visit to a special school recently, where normal social interactions, eating breakfast, for example, are structured and used to support learning and engagement to positive effect. Anecdotal feedback and the Queen's University report suggest that the nurture approach has a very positive behavioural benefit on children, and nurture would, therefore, appear to sit well with other early intervention measures.

The Queen's University study seems to show that about one fifth of participating pupils moved down the SEN register, ie their special educational needs seemed to improve as a consequence of nurture. Nurture is also cost-effective: the cost per child appears to be around £13,000 per annum, contrasted with average costs of provision of support under a SEN statement of £10,000 per annum in primary and £7,000 per annum in post-primary. That might suggest that a more elaborate study needs to be carried out to establish whether schools with nurture units have fewer SEN statements.

Our Committee would also like to put on record support for the mainstreaming of nurture, but we may also want to see what impact it has on the overall level of SEN statementing in schools.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP 12:45 pm, 15th November 2016

I do not think that anyone in the House will disagree that our children should be given the best start in life. Indeed, the findings of the Queen's University report clearly support the value of nurture groups as an effective intervention strategy, but the most important part of the motion is the final clause. It is imperative that ways to utilise the best practice of nurture groups be identified and put into action in schools throughout Northern Ireland.

All counties have areas that could benefit from nurture groups. The principles that underpin all this work should include equal opportunity for all schools and that schools can adapt to the needs of all our children, be they suffering from a difficult home life, have special educational needs, or are gifted children who need stretching.

A nurture group typically caters for very young schoolchildren who have social, behavioural or emotional needs greater than the norm. Without specialist care, they can have a negative school experience and, indeed, make school life more difficult for their peers and teachers. Effective nurture systems can ease the child into mainstream schooling, equip them for school life and allow them to play a full role in their school.

As with so many of the issues that we discuss, identifying and addressing them as early as possible is the key to achieving optimal outcomes for the children, their parents and society as a whole.

While nurture groups here are traditionally attached to primary schools, in other parts of the UK more and more post-primary schools are setting up nurture groups, as pupils are increasingly presenting to these schools at an emotionally and socially different developmental stage.

Recent research shows that, after the formative years, the other major time restriction on the brain is the teenage years. Many principals today recognise the importance of how emotional well-being underpins learning and has a significant impact not only on attendance and behaviour but on academic achievement. Research also indicates that these nurture groups can have a whole-school effect, where not only children in the nurture group improve but so do other children with similar issues throughout the school.

It is clear, then, that nurture groups can make a substantial difference to the lives of the children who have the opportunity to be part of one. They improve behaviour, improve performance and improve outcomes for the children, but there are only 32 nurture groups in Northern Ireland and approximately 800 primary schools. Resources are not infinite, but the lessons of the nurture groups can be learned by all who are interested in the education of our children. The findings about the benefits of these small-group situations for children supports how working in smaller groups can be so beneficial, and it has been proven that behaviour associated with engagement with the curriculum improves, the children settle quicker to work in the classroom and they gain ability to work collaboratively with other pupils. In supporting the motion, I urge that consideration be given to the scheme being extended to post-primary schools and that mainstream nurture provision be provided across the Province.

Photo of Catherine Seeley Catherine Seeley Sinn Féin

I thank the DUP for bringing the motion to the House; it is a motion that we are happy to support. A recent report in 'The Irish News' detailed the 529 children who are making consistently large improvements in social, emotional and behavioural development thanks to their inclusion in nurture provision. That alone is testament to the importance of continuing investment in nurture groups. The Queen's University of Belfast report on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of nurture group provision in the North accredits nurture groups with developing emotional literacy and resilience. It details how nurture groups are designed to enhance children's opportunities so that they can interact in a more positive way and have increased self-awareness, and it also enables the classroom assistant and the teacher to devise activities suited to the needs of individual children. There is no doubt that this results in the development of positive relationships, something that some of our children may not experience on the home front. Additionally, as the report notes, nurture groups are an effective form of early intervention through which teachers and classroom assistants can identify children who would benefit from an enriched learning experience.

Through involvement in these groups, teachers have the opportunity to develop children as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. I therefore welcome the Minister's commitment to fulfilling and, indeed, advancing the sterling work of his predecessor, my party colleague John O'Dowd MLA, who part-funded their expansion and targeted extra Department of Education resources to nurture groups.

As has been noted, nurture provision develops the language and communication skills of our children at early stages of their life, laying the building blocks for social interaction. These are life skills that they can avail themselves of for conflict resolution, anger management and when discussing and dealing with emotions, as well as when identifying a range of positive relationships. The advantages of more fully developing the language and communication skills of children when they are in their early years cannot and should not be underestimated. Interventions such as this can determine the future of a child and their outcomes.

At a time of increased class sizes, sadly, some children risk slipping through the net. Full-to-the-brim classrooms do not create learning environments conducive for all. That is why it is important, moving forward, that area plans recognise this and do not target small schools but instead respond to need to secure investment into intervention mechanisms such as this.

Finally, the Queen's University of Belfast report not only recognises the need for evidence-based policymaking but identifies areas for improvement with regard to nurture provision. I hope that any future investment from the Minister will be geared towards that. I commend the motion, as amended by the SDLP, to the House.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am happy to contribute to this important debate on an important issue. It is good to hear the support around the Chamber for nurture education. It is hard to imagine that anyone, anywhere would have any problems with it.

Nurture education developed in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a response to identified need. The provision offers a short-term focused intervention strategy that addresses barriers to learning arising from social, emotional or behavioural difficulties in an inclusive and supportive manner. As an early intervention strategy, the core focus group for nurture provision is pupils in the early stages of primary education, from primary 1 to primary 3. The core purposes of nurture education are to provide a flexible and preventative resource that is responsive to the particular needs of the children attending that nurture unit; to provide ongoing assessment and support for early years children showing signs of emotional stress and behavioural difficulties, with the aim of enabling the child to access the curriculum and return to full-time participation in their mainstream class; to help the children to learn to behave appropriately, which is something that some Members in here might be able to benefit from; to improve children's self-esteem and develop their confidence through forming close and trusting relationships with adults; and to work in partnership with teachers, parents, schools, staff and outside agencies to enable consistency of approach both at home and at school.

The motion refers to the Queen's report. Indeed, numerous studies and research projects have consistently highlighted the effectiveness of nurture education as an early intervention strategy. The success of nurture provision is evidenced clearly by the fact that there has been such a significant growth in it over the past number of years. In Glasgow, for example, there are a minimum of 68 nurture units, while we now have 32 in the North. In the Northern Ireland context, two evaluations of nurture provision have been conducted in the past year, and both have been highly positive in their conclusions. The ETI report, to which Mr Lyttle referred, reported the effectiveness of the provision and saw a need for even greater roll-out. The evaluation of the pilot nurture project in Northern Ireland conducted by Queen's was also highly positive about the benefits of nurture education and its cost-effectiveness.

It is clear that the evidence highlights the social, emotional, behavioural and educational benefits of nurture education as well as the economic benefits of this type of provision. While these reports have identified and highlighted the benefits of nurture education, I have also seen at first hand the benefits of nurture education to children and families. I pay tribute to a constituent of mine Garry Matthewson, who has been a great champion of and for nurture education not just in my constituency but right across the North and has worked closely with previous Ministers on the issue. I suppose that I also have to commend the work of previous Ministers. I have no doubt that the current Minister will work with Ministers across the Executive to progress this, because it is bigger than an education issue. It is clear to me that, as the outcomes of nurture education are a benefit to many Departments in our local Assembly and, indeed, society as a whole, it is only just that funding for nurture provision is either a shared fund from the various Departments that benefit, including Education, Communities, Health and Justice, or maybe more simply an Executive funding stream. Indeed, through Mr Agnew's Children's Services Co-operation Act, there is the scope and, actually, a duty for that to be done.

In our fragmented education system, it is important that all sectors have access to nurture provision so that no child or family —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member bring his comments to a close?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

— is required to leave that sector to access provision. My colleague referred to the Irish-medium sector, but it is my understanding that there is no nurture provision in the integrated sector. Maybe the Minister will address that.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up. The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. Beidh an Coiste Gnó ag a haon a chlog. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. Beidh Tráth na gCeist againn ansin. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)