Jury out on restorative practice

Chris Holligan

It seems eminently sensible to address the rising levels of indiscipline by devising policies and school practices around enlightened conceptual frameworks. A currently favoured model of the Scottish Government and local authorities has the appealing title of "restorative practice".

What is it? A brief canter through key sources used by those recently evaluating it at Edinburgh University captures the flavour of this national policy initiative. Selznick (1996) argues that "personal responsibility is most likely to flourish when there is genuine opportunity to participate in communal life", but that this "will depend on the prevalence of a sense of personal responsibility for the common good".

Hopkins (2002) asks whether everything schools do gives "central importance to building, maintaining and, when necessary, repairing relationships and community".

The Scottish Government's interest in restorative practices is informed by a desire to comply with European human rights laws, as it endeavours to conform to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Wachtel (2004) suggests that "the dramatic increase in negative behaviour among young people is largely the result of the loss of connectedness and community in modern society. Schools have become larger, more impersonal ... In an increasingly disconnected world, restorative approaches build relationships and restore communities".

But we simply do not know if restorative practice will deliver what it claims. The jury of the research community is out on that; what is needed is not research funded by government directly (that is the route of conflict-of-interest, especially when the work is conducted by organisations dependent upon a regular flow of external money), but truly independent research. Until that is produced, this initiative may be doing more damage - to the victims of bullying and violence.

Watchel's arguments may be fantastic on paper but lead to a greater and continued fear in the victim, as he or she feels a sense of obligation, imposed by having to conform to school norms and participate in the ritual of a restorative practice. This ritual may normalise them into the role of a passive victim, one who feels psychologically obliged not ever to show signs of retaliation - whatever natural justice might dictate.

Thus, restorative practice might redesign relationships, but at the cost of reducing the fighting chances of the child in the Darwinian world outside the school where such an intiative does not operate on the street or in the competitive world of work. In this sense, the practice is deeply disabling for individuals, while claiming to be inclusive.

Perpetrators may well be "street wise", revelling in the opportunity to evade punishment for their wrongdoing. It is unhelpful to encourage such children to think they can escape rehabilitation by dint of appropriate punishments through simply "making up" to their victim, who might not really wish to participate in this institutionalised form of justice.

If bullies exploit the system, this "success" will only reinforce their conformity to organisational liberal values. But it would be foolish to conclude that, deep down and outside school, they have altered, morally or psychologically. As the mantra of evidence-based policy is trumpeted across rooftops, do we know if this one works yet?

Chris Holligan is a lecturer in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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Chris Holligan

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