New ways of fixing old school disputes

An Aberdeen secondary has trained its staff to mete out restorative justice, writes Miranda Fettes

Northfield Academy, in one of Aberdeen's most deprived areas, was the first school in Scotland to have its own police officer. PC Keith Mulloy has been at the school for four years and his work has been such a success that other authorities are following suit (TESS, September 8).

The school, which has a roll of 1,000, is embracing restorative justice. Last year six members of staff undertook a week-long course and now they have trained about a third of their colleagues in the techniques.

Run by the community safety and crime reduction organisation Sacro, the course covers the history and theory of restorative justice and examines how to apply it in a school setting.

Danny Lobo, a modern studies teacher at the school, says: "The approach runs parallel with the school's discipline policy.

"In August 2005, we started rolling out our own programme," says Mr Lobo.

"After the course that trained us to be trainers, we adapted it for the whole school."

The school has now trained 32 of its 100 staff and is training a further seven, including auxiliary and administrative workers. All staff were invited to attend a series of six two-hour twilight courses.

"Half the permanent staff at the school are going to be trained," says Mr Lobo.

Enrolling in the training is voluntary, but Mr Lobo says the response and enthusiasm for it has been phenomenal.

"It gives us a way of resolving issues differently," he explains. "For example, to reintegrate a pupil from exclusion, it helps to repair any damaged relationship between pupil and teacher. It has helped increase rapport between pupils and teachers, and it has held off more serious trouble happening between pupils."

Critics sometimes dismiss restorative justice as a soft option, but PC Mulloy says it is not the case. In the wider setting of the criminal justice system, it forces criminals to face up to their crimes and their victims. At Northfield, it encourages pupils to take responsibility for their actions and think about how their behaviour impacts on others.

Rather than being used to address bullying, so far, he says, "it's more incidents between a member of staff and a pupil, or a couple of pupils who have been at loggerheads, or classroom conflict, preventing fights and friction from escalating.

"It's giving them the chance to accept responsibility for what they've done."

One S1 class was beset by major behavioural difficulties. Using restorative justice theory, the school did a group circle with the whole class, giving pupils the freedom to challenge other members of the class.

"A couple of staff were involved and pupils were getting to realise what effect their behaviour was having on other pupils. It was very effective,"

says PC Mulloy.

The school researched restorative justice and was inspired by the positive experience reported by school police officers who have implemented it in Thames Valley.

"We thought it would be a great tool to use up here," says PC Mulloy. "The school's only sanction was exclusion. This is another tool. An alternative to discipline."

The training showed how to approach an incident or disciplinary matter from another angle.

Mr Lobo admits it is not a wonder approach, but it is another tool in the school's arsenal, which has proven effective in some situations.

"If the restorative approaches don't work we fall back on the discipline policy," he says. "It gives staff more confidence in dealing with conflict.

It is essentially about conflict management.

"We are hoping to embed it into the ethos of the school.

"As more staff are trained and apply what they've learnt, then continuity will hopefully help them handle situations in the school and deal with them differently and improve relationships between teachers and pupils and between pupils and other pupils."

Restorative justice, he says, has been used for thousands of years by tribes around the world.

"The best way forward is to get everyone that's involved to reach their own decision, rather than laying down a solution. There is a lot of mediation involved."

Mr Lobo says feedback from staff who have completed the course has been very positive.

"There have been a few restorative meetings between staff and pupils and the staff involved have said it's helped and they've had no problems with that pupil again.

"It's getting to know what the pupil brings to the class with them - such as problems from outside school - and what the staff brings to the class with them.

"It's understanding the expectations of pupils and staff and what they want from the system and creating the best outcome for all concerned."

"It opens up dialogue," says Mr Lobo. "If we can make things run smoothly, then it's much easier for young people to learn and it's much better for staff. You never stop learning and trying to better your own performance within the classroom."

The training, he says, made him analyse his own behaviour.

"You pick up valuable insights into behaviour. It makes you look at your own behaviour and hooks and triggers, what makes you angry and how you deal with it.

"It can be quite alarming. I've always thought I'm quite calm, but I got on to the topic of modern art and the Turner Prize and I could feel myself feeling tense. I was leaning forward and my fists were clenched. I laughed about it but you transfer that from yourself and think how easily I got like that, so it's easy to see how a pupil can get into that situation.

"As staff, we don't know what's going on outside in a pupil's life, so it taught me to be aware of hooks and triggers so that you can identify the cause of the problem and why somebody's reacting the way they are.

"You're trying to look back and remember what life was like as a 13- or 14-year-old. What were your hopes and fears and expectations? You're trying to put yourself into the mind of a teenager."

PC Mulloy says it is too early to measure the success of the initiative, but hopes its impact will become more marked as it becomes more embedded in the school's daily functioning.

"In a couple of years' time I think we'll start to see a big improvement in terms of continuity, since we'll have most of the school trained up and using it. I have seen it working."

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