Build a sense of community responsibility and belonging, supported by reconciliation and the identification of positive ways of resolving difficulties and tensions.

This article is based upon a manual written by Thorsborne and Vinegrad, describing the process of applying restorative justice to schools. This began originally in New Zealand and was later transferred to Australia. It was written to introduce the theories and processes of restorative justice techniques into education, in order to create a just behaviour management system. The process could be implemented in Pastoral Support Plans in order to identify ways forward for pupils who are at risk of exclusion.

The theory behind the manual began with the increasing disquiet surrounding growing levels of pupil disaffection, often resulting in exclusion. The feeling was that exclusion from school often led to increased youth crime and to eventual social exclusion. This concern resulted in a search for an initiative that lay emphasis upon building a sense of community responsibility and belonging, supported by reconciliation and the identification of positive ways of resolving difficulties and tensions.

Research into actions to maintain students has suggested that sanctions perpetrated in school often result in the alienation and stigmatisation of those who are perceived as wrongdoers. This contributes to the establishment of a sub-culture that rejects acceptable behaviour and discipline and is indicated by a lack of connection between young people and their school communities. These outcomes work against the promotion of well-being, resilience and inclusion.

The authors suggest that schools should move away from a behaviour management system that mirrors the criminal justice service and is based upon the belief that:

  • sanctions should be applied when rules are broken;
  • punishment will change behaviour and achieve compliance;
  • punishment is a deterrent and applying punitive sanctions sends out strong messages about what is acceptable;
  • challenges to the school authority must be rejected and control maintained;
  • negative behaviours can be resolved through a quick fix such as exclusion;
  • those affected by the behaviour are excluded from decisions about what should be done to address it.

The way that schools react to pupils who are seen as challenging is often in conflict with other messages given out through initiatives such as citizenship and individualised support for learning difficulties etc. As a result, some schools have begun to question the value of sanctions and punishments, and asked instead what evidence is there that the applied responses bring about success for the pupil? Issues raised from this questioning have led to reflection upon:

  • Whether schools provide similar levels of development for behaviour management as they do for curriculum support;
  • How pupils are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions;
  • Is this effective in reducing future incidence?
  • At present, the criminal justice system is being challenged to look at its responses in the light of rising prison populations and re-offending behaviours. This may suggest that traditional approaches to school behaviour management may need to be re-evaluated in order to justify reactions to pupils. The criminal justice systems are moving towards a restorative approach and schools are also beginning to recognise the potential in this process to address both the policy and the practice of behaviour management. Restorative justice suggests that:
  • Misconduct often results in a violation against other pupils and their rights;
  • These violations create obligations and liabilities;
    • restorative justice works in a participatory process to put right the wrong.
    • in schools, this means that when confronted with serious incidents such as a pupil/teacher assault, instead of reacting to the issue instantly and negatively, schools change to a process that actually deals with the question: what outcomes are we hoping to achieve? This then leads to reflection upon issues such as:
  • Who is responsible and accountable for what happened?
  • Who has been affected?
  • What are their needs?
  • What is the extent of the harm and how might we begin to repair this?

To put in place restorative justice intervention requires reliance upon community conferencing, a device that needs the active involvement of those affected by, and responsible for, the misconduct. Community conferencing is a time consuming process and requires the input of a facilitator who may be head of pastoral care, the SENCo, school counsellor or educational liaison/welfare officer.

The facilitator will need to invite to the conference the victims and perpetrators, their families and the other key people involved, such as witnesses. To ensure participation, it is essential that the benefits of resolving the situation and identifying action to allow the situation to be repaired, be explained to all. Some may fear making problems worse, but it needs to be made clear that the focus of the conference is not on allotting punishment. It may be, that on occasions, parents are unwilling or unable to attend. In these situations it is best to ask the affected pupil to nominate someone who they feel could be supportive to them – this may be an empathetic member of staff, a youth leader or family friend.

The theory behind the manual began with the increasing disquiet surrounding growing levels of pupil disaffection, often resulting in exclusion.

The feeling was that exclusion from school often led to increased youth crime and to eventual social exclusion.

Before the conference, it is necessary for the facilitator to interview the participants to explain the process and build a relationship of trust. This should give an idea of the issues involved and allow explanation of the limitations of the process i.e. it will deal with the alleged incident but is not likely to bring about changes in personality or responses. Conferences often follow a script that includes asking those attending questions such as:

  • What is your involvement?
  • What did you think when you first heard?
  • What has happened since?
  • How are things at home/in the classroom?
  • How has this affected you?
  • What issues concern you the most?
  • What do you need now?

It is best if all participants are encouraged to tell the truth – this may seem obvious but, if the conflict is for example between a teacher and a pupil, the teacher may be unwilling to say that they felt inadequate in front of other pupils for fear of appearing weak.The result of the conference, however, is more likely to result in positive outcomes if everyone is honest and allows insight into their feelings.

The conference may be held at school if a suitable room is available, but sometimes neutral territory is best. It is best to select somewhere that has photocopying facilities so the agreement that identifies the action to be taken can be given out to everyone before they leave. Before the action is recorded however, all at the conference need to agree that the conclusions are fair and that they will repair the harm that has been done.

Thorsborne and Vinegrad suggest schools incorporating the principles of restorative justice into pupil management can:

  • address the causes of negative behaviour rather than reacting to its consequences;
  • repair the harm and reintegrate the perpetrator: into the school community;
  • provide a forum where victims and offenders engage and decide themselves upon appropriate action for retribution;
  • indicate they are willing to put in time and effort to rebuild relationships.

In order to follow the principles of restorative justice, schools must prepare by ensuring that they have programmes in place that enhance the personal and social competence in all members of the school community. They should be working towards ensuring the provision of a positive and socially healthy environment for all, demonstrated by a culture that is negotiated and democratic. They need to have in place structures and arrangements that allow the time for restorative justice practices to take place.

Schools that have trialled restorative justice using Community Conferences have indicated that benefits included:

  • Participants being highly satisfied with the process and its outcomes.
  • High compliance rates by perpetrators.
  • Low rates of re-offending.
  • Perpetrators felt more valued and less rejected.
  • Victims felt safer and more able to manage similar situations of conflict.
  • Schools felt that the process reaffirmed and demonstrated school values.
  • Parents felt increased confidence in the system.

This concern resulted in a search for an initiative that lay emphasis upon building a sense of community responsibility and the identification of positive ways of resolving difficulties and tensions.

Further information

Restorative practices in schools: Rethinking Behaviour Management by Margaret Thorsborne and David Vinegrad £20 published by Incentive Plus.

Tel: 01908 526 120

www.incentiveplus.co.uk

Although based upon Australian/New Zealand educational systems, this manual has a great deal to offer schools who wish to reflect upon inclusive behaviour management systems that are aimed at reducing exclusion. It contains all the information required to put restorative practices into place.

Reproduced by permission of Special Needs Information Press

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2005.

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