RESTORATIVE JUSTICE- WHAT HAPPENS WHEN IT HITS THE CLASSROOM
East Sussex pilots might hold valuable lessons for school discipline
Pupil behaviour is cited consistently by staff, parents and young people as one of the leading problems in schools. Indeed, it serves to disrupt pupils education, is a factor in parents deciding on their choice of school and, in some cases, graduates decision not to choose teaching as a career Indeed, many teachers who leave the profession early cite poor discipline and classroom behaviour as a major factor in sealing their exit. In 2007/8, children in English state schools were given 384,000 suspensions – representing some 5.14 per cent of the pupil population. Although this was a drop compared with the previous year it represented a significant rise on the 4.5 per cent 2003/4 figure.
Head teachers have the powers to place difficult children in pupil sin-bins for months on end. A document published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families warned that there was a risk that schools were using this tactic to “keep difficult pupils” outside ordinary classrooms. The Government in the meantime is planning to introduce new rules from September to stop schools abusing this power. For the first time, heads will be required to give advanced written notice to parents about plans to educate children off-site and alternative classes must be stopped at the end of the academic year. What is clear though is that discipline, and how to deal with troublesome and disruptive pupils, remains a continuing problem and challenge for Heads and governing bodies. Current approaches to discipline vary considerably between schools but successful schools invariably have better disciplinary records than their less successful peers. A study – Restorative Practice in Schools-Paul Howard December 2009 published by CfBT Education Trust reports on restorative justice pilots tested in three schools in East Sussex (one secondary, one primary and one special)
The report notes that many of the current responses to unacceptable behaviour can be described as ‘punitive’. The impact of punitive approaches though is open to question. For example, significant levels of recidivist behaviour suggest that at least some sanctions have little or no influence over the subsequent behaviour of ‘offenders’. Similarly, those schools that make extensive use of sanctions often continue to do so over time, which suggests that punishment has limited value as a deterrent for other pupils.
There are, however, different approaches that might work.
During the last few years, there has been significant interest for example in the application of restorative justice principles within schools. Although the use of restorative practice in schools is a recent development, it has deep historical roots. It is the philosophy behind South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it is now seen to be spreading into workplaces, communities, hospitals – and schools. The restorative practices are based on the notion that, where conflict occurs, either or both parties and their relationship are harmed and it is this harm that needs to be addressed. Punitive approaches mean, in practice, a third party acts as judge, jury and executioner. Restorative practice on the other hand envisages ownership of behaviour and conflict resolution. Critics of the restorative approach suggest that pupils, if disputes are mediated by a third party, may end up with no clear sense that there can be absolute right and wrong, and no fault, just shades of grey. And surely the system can be used to evade direct personal responsibility for their actions.
Not so, claim supporters, as the system focuses on ensuring that pupils see and understand the consequences of their actions, encourages then to take responsibility and to find out much more clearly how others perceive their actions.
Although each school was encouraged to pursue its own development path, the project included a number of common core features. Firstly, briefing for heads and senior leader. Secondly, a model of whole school training in informal restorative practice. Thirdly, formal mediation training for identified staff and pupils. And, finally, consultancy support during the project with those directly involved, who retain responsibility for resolution of the problem.
In Ratton Secondary school, for example, initially, five students and five teachers were trained in formal mediation learning together how to follow set scripts in order to speak to each party involved separately, find out what happened, and identify how people were feeling about the conflict and what they thought should be done. The principles of the system were also introduced to the whole school through an assembly, and through training for teachers and teaching assistants. The school has achieved well over 40 successful mediations, where mutually worked-out agreements have been maintained, and is starting to see changes to its atmosphere. It is now on its second cohort of mediators, who have found the training “ eye-opening”
Key to the success of this is the extent of the involvement of the schools leadership team including, particularly, the Head. Some initial teacher resistance was soon replaced by real personal commitment and engagement from teachers.
Whether or not it was possible for a member of the leadership team to commit time to training in formal mediation, the authors believed that it is of fundamental importance that the head teacher and other members of the team are routine users of informal restorative techniques. The successful development of restorative practice not only entails the acquisition of new skills and techniques but also requires schools to reflect on their value base and culture .Given that restorative approaches challenge the existing assumptions and practice of at least some staff, the active involvement and engagement of all the school’s senior leaders and staff is an essential element of the programme to ensure its success.
The report seeks to inform schools on the features of different models of practice and guide them in the development of their own restorative practice. The report’s author, Paul Howard, told the Independent newspaper (14 January) that there is growing evidence that these practices work, yet the Government has shown little interest and there was no mention of them in last year’s Steer Report on school behaviour. Ratton School, however, is sure the system leads to more responsible and thoughtful behaviour.
Note: This independent report was commissioned by CFBT Education Trust. Any views conclusions and recommendations expressed in the report are those of the author.