Last Updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Nurture in North Ayrshire

What is this?

​This practice exemplar shares North Ayrshire’s approach to embedding nurture across all education establishments. Nurture groups have been set up in nine early years settings, 20 primary schools and seven secondary schools with an aim to support closing the poverty-related attainment gap. This work is part of North Ayrshire’s Scottish Attainment Challenge nurture work-stream and the local authority’s approach to nurture. It contains key evidence gathered showing the impact of interventions and the benefits of a holistic approach across a local authority.

Who is this for?

​This exemplar will be beneficial to local authorities and school leadership teams looking to embed nurture. It will also be of interest to primary and secondary teachers and early-years practitioners.

​Explore this practice exemplar

What was done?

North Ayrshire has developed a range of initiatives to embed nurturing approaches in all educational establishments. All nurturing practice is founded on the Six Principles of Nurture (Lucas, Insley and Buckland, 2006). They are:

  • Learning is understood developmentally;
  • The classroom offers a safe space;
  • Nurture is important for the development of wellbeing;
  • Language is a vital means of communication;
  • All behaviour is communication;
  • Transitions are significant in children’s lives.

North Ayrshire apply rigorous quality improvement processes to identify and monitor the impact of nurturing approaches in the targeted groups. To ensure smooth transitions for learners identified for nurture intervention and to benefit every child in North Ayrshire’s schools, universal nurture training was also delivered to increase practitioner confidence in using nurture as the basis of an inclusive approach.

Nurture provision in North Ayrshire has recently been extended from 15 to 20 primary schools. Groups are located in areas with high numbers of pupils who live in Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) decile 1 and 2 areas. Targeted nurture  provision also includes early years nurture groups in nine early years establishments and seven secondary schools. This work is delivered through the Education and Youth Employment’s Educational Psychology Department.


North Ayrshire has the sixth highest percentage of children living in families with limited resources of all local authority areas in Scotland, with 29.3% of children living in poverty. A wide range of national evidence, including research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2014), indicates a link between poverty and children’s wellbeing.

Local data highlighted a link between distressed behaviour and future non-engagement with education leading to an impact on future life chances. Teacher feedback indicated that some staff felt they would benefit from developing their understanding of appropriate strategies to respond to children exhibiting distressed behaviour.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge approach in North Ayrshire was created in response to this with the intention of developing staff skills and enhancing practitioner competencies in meeting children’s needs with particular emphasis on developing resilience.

What was the impact?

The impact of nurture groups is assessed using a commercially available package. This provides a framework for assessing children’s social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Commercially available packages, such as the one North Ayrshire used, can assess children’s social and emotional development and their behaviours and shows the correlation between the two.

The graphs show the positive impact on the 95 children who have experienced this intervention to date. Assessments are taken at the beginning and end of the individual child’s intervention period. Children can attend for up to a maximum of four terms. The developmental strands on the first graph show that children’s social and emotional development has progressed. The diagnostic scores in the second graph show that children’s exhibition of distressed behaviours has reduced.

The impact of nurture groups is also measured through strengths and difficulties questionnaires (SDQs), which are completed by practitioners and parents. Analysis of 2016-17 data highlights a significant positive trend on the impact of nurture on learners. Qualitative feedback is also gathered comments from teaching staff and parents highlight the positive impact of the intervention:

'Nurture has made a huge difference to children who attend on a daily basis. There is a better understanding of appropriate class behaviour on the part of practitioners and learners.' Class teacher
'My child has really benefited from nurture and has come on great. I am really happy with her progress.' Parent

How to use this exemplar to improve practice

Several actions were crucial to the successful implementation of North Ayrshire’s nurture plan. The introduction of both a whole school focus on nurturing approaches and the introduction of nurture groups were central to the success of the project. Whole school nurturing approaches were prioritised at a strategic level. Schools were asked to ensure that improvement plans had a focus on positive relationships.

Nurturing approaches training was delivered to every school in the authority. This ensured that every child in North Ayrshire benefitted from nurturing approaches and that all staff had an increased focus on meeting children’s wellbeing needs. At the same time, nurture groups were established as a targeted intervention. In order to replicate this approach it will be important to ensure that:

  • The nurture groups follow an evidence based model.
  • Rigorous assessment is used to identify children.
  • Children’s learning takes place in small groups, with a maximum of six children to two adults.
  • Each group is staffed by a teacher and an assistant. 
  • All aspects of the nurture groups are informed by the six principles of nurture.
  • The nurture room is a carefully planned physical environment that has many home like features.
  • Learning follows a wellbeing plan, each child works towards their own individualised targets.
  • There are clear routines and rituals in the nurture group that support children’s feelings of safety.
  • Children’s learning approached in a developmentally appropriate way.
  • There is a clear understanding of the relationship between the Nurture room and the mainstream classroom.

Nurture group staff are well-supported. A centrally appointed Principal Teacher of nurture provided support and challenge to schools with nurture groups and the nurture staff. The nurture staff met as a team and participated in regular on-going training that continued to build and enhance their understanding and application of nurturing approaches. Nurture group staff have a key role in developing nurturing approaches across the wider schools.

Improvement questions

  • What strategies and approaches can be utilised to build teacher confidence in enhancing emotional resilience in children and young people?
  • How can nurturing approaches be embedded consistently across all school establishments?
  • What impact does nurture approaches have on attainment and achievement? How do you know?