Nurturing Approaches in Schools Service (NASS)

The Nurturing Approaches in Schools Service (NASS) is a newly established regional Service within the Education Authority’s Children and Young People’s Services Directorate supporting the development of Whole School Nurturing Approaches (WSNA).

The NASS provides advice, guidance and focused support to schools in line with the Education Authority’s strategic vision:

“To inspire, support and challenge all our children and young people to be the best that they can be.”

The NASS delivers the following objectives:

  • Maintain support structures & build capacity of the 31 existing Department of Education (DE) funded Nurture Groups promoting coherence and quality assurance.
  • Encourage and support all 31 DE funded Nurture Groups to achieve the Marjorie Boxall Quality Mark Award.
  • Maintain existing monitoring arrangements in place across the 31 DE funded Nurture Groups.
  • Develop and deliver the Whole School Nurturing Approaches Model of Support across the primary sector.
  • Support capacity building which will deepen teacher understanding around the areas of attachment, brain development, stress and trauma, child development, and nurture principles, practices, and Nurture Groups, and the developing regional strategy in relation to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s).
  • Support primary school Principals and Board of Governors in their strategic implementation of a whole school nurturing approach. 
  • Develop and implement effective systems to monitor, measure, control and report on the impact of the WSNA model of support in line with Children and Young Peoples Service’s outcomes based accountability framework.

What is Nurture?

To Nurture by definition means “To care and protect” *1.

In the context of Education the word gives rise to a ‘specific, meaningful, and purposeful connotation’ describing the needs of children, the ethos of assistance provided, and the learning experiences acquired *2. Emotional well-being underpins learning.  Nurture, Nurture Groups, and Nurturing Approaches allow children to flourish emotionally, where each child can learn, develop and grow, based on their individual needs.

*1 Oxford English Dictionary

*2 Marjorie Boxall (revised and updated by Sylvia Lucas) (2010). Nurture Groups in Schools: Principles and Practice. Second Edition.  Sage Publications. London. Page 13). 

What is a Nurture Group?

Nurture groups were originally developed in 1969 in London by educational psychologist Marjorie Boxall who saw that a large number of children entering school arrived with severe social, emotional and behavioural needs. These students were unable to form trusting relationships with adults or to respond appropriately to other children – in effect, they were simply not ready to meet the social and intellectual demands of school life (Nurture UK).

The nurture group is run by a specially trained qualified teacher and classroom assistant who offer a warm, structured environment where each child is encouraged to build their confidence and learn positive behaviour.

The nurture room is a small class within the school that is set up like a home, with a living area, kitchen and dining area. There is a set routine so the children know what they will be doing each day.  Children attending the group also start the day and spend some time with their main class, and take part in all school activities.

A nurture group allows children to flourish emotionally. It is a safe place in school where each child can learn, develop and grow, based on their individual needs. It offers “a short term, focussed, intervention strategy, which addresses barriers to learning arising from social, emotional or behavioural difficulties through an inclusive and supportive manner. Central to the philosophy of nurture is the theory of attachment, and the need for a child to be able to form secure and happy relationships with others in the formative years of their lives. The nurture group provides an opportunity for a child to re-visit early nurturing experiences” (Department of Education Northern Ireland).

In essence the Nurture Group “provides a carefully routined day, where there is a balance of learning and teaching, affection and structure within a home like atmosphere” (Nurture UK)

The Six Principles of Nurture

  • Children's learning is understood developmentally - Early learning experiences. We need to reinforce neural pathways to strengthen them to do the same tasks lots of times.
  • The classroom offers a safe baseRelationships are key. We need to feel safe and to trust our environment and the people around us to progress.
  • The importance of nurture for the development of self-esteem - If we practice something enough we will get better at it …
  • Language is a vital means of communication - Language has to be heard, used, practiced and relevant to the situation. Develops sequentially.
  • All behaviour is communication - Relationships. We need to feel safe, to trust our environment and the people around us so we can develop new modes of behaviour.
  • The importance of transition in children's lives - Experiencing good relationships (and nurture) is the best predictor for learning readiness.

(Ref: Lucas,S., Insley,K. and Buckland,G. (2006) Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines Helping Children to Achieve, The Nurture Group Network).

Nurture in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Nurture Provision has been operating for many years, with some schools self-funding or accessing funds through the Department for Social Development (DSD) Neighbourhood Renewal Investment Fund.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) announced funding for 20 new Nurture Groups in 2012, through the Delivering Social Change (DSC) Signature Projects. The DSC Nurture Signature Project was a 2 year initiative established in 2013 with the objective of providing 20 new Nurture Units in primary schools across Northern Ireland. The location of the Nurture Groups was identified by using objective criteria based on areas of need.

A parallel programme for 10 longer established units was funded initially by the Department of Social Development (DSD) then latterly the Department of Education (DE).

Although the DSC Nurture Signature Project funding ceased in June 2015, DE secured further funding through the Department of Finance (DFP) Change Fund, which has enabled the 30 units to be sustained, in addition to establishing 2 further Nurture Units within the Irish Medium Sector.

The Department of Education (DE) and DSD were involved in delivering this project initially and the DE invested further funds for the continued provision of the 10 established Nurture Groups in schools in which funding was coming to an end.

Currently the DE funds 31 Nurture Groups across Northern Ireland.

Queen’s University Belfast  (QUB -2016) carried out research to determine the impact of nurture provision which found clear evidence that Nurture Group provision in Northern Ireland is highly successful in its primary aim of achieving improvements in the social, emotional and behavioural skills of children. The research identified ten key components in relation to the successful establishment and delivery of Nurture Group provision.

The evaluation of the Nurture Signature Pilot Project (2016) by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETi) also concluded very positive outcomes highlighting that the “progressive learning experiences contribute significantly to the children’s personal, social and emotional development and their overall learning”.  

Both QUB and ETI’s Report and Evaluation have contributed to the formation and Service delivery of Whole School Nurturing Approaches (WSNA) by NASS.

Whole School Nurturing Approaches (WSNA)

The concept of Whole School Nurturing Approaches (WSNA) is applicable to all schools. It underpins the very foundation of our social environments – i.e. who you are with, and not who you are born to – and its significant influence on social, emotional and behavioural development.

WSNA provide pupils with the learning experience to develop social, emotional and behavioural skills and encourage success at school and with peers. WSNA helps develop resilience in pupils and the capacity to respond more confidently to the challenges presented today and in the future (Nurture UK).

WSNA therefore, can be utilised for targeted intervention for pupils who may be experiencing attachment difficulties, and can also be used in a more holistic ‘whole school’ approach, supporting all children, including those with a range of barriers to learning.

With this in mind and following the positive impact of the DSC Nurture Signature Project (2013) as evidenced by the research and evaluation conducted by QUB (2016) and ETi (2016), and utilising The MacKay model of nurture support (2010), the Education Authority will facilitate the delivery of a ‘Whole School Nurturing Approaches Model of Support’ to all Primary Schools across Northern Ireland.  This will be a progressive model of capacity building where attendance at Levels 1 and 2 will determine continuation of support at Level 3.

Online Resources / Documents

For further information regarding Nurture, Nurture Groups, and Nurturing Approaches please contact:

Sean Irving

Regional Manager for Nurturing Approaches in Schools

028 38 314468 / 028 38 314450

Last updated: 31/01/2020