The aim is a very simple one: to resolve conflict between individuals at school without needing to resort to sanctions or punishment.
In practice, restorative justice involves students taking responsibility for their actions, understanding the repercussions of those actions on other people and taking steps to put things right. This could be through talking to the “victim” about what has happened and taking some action to make amends. It involves a different approach to issues that happen in school – one that gives pupils ownership of their behaviour. It requires time, which can be in scant supply in schools. In short, it can be tricky.
But we think we’re beginning to make restorative justice work for certain behaviour issues in our boarding houses at Christ’s Hospital School; we’re also hopeful that we can transfer this success to more general classroom issues. What we have found is that, when used well, restorative justice is much more powerful than imposing a punishment and changes the way one thinks about relationships with others.
By explaining how such an approach works in our setting, there will hopefully be some useful take-aways about how restorative justice could work for other schools in different settings.
If restorative justice is to be successfully implemented, it has to be inclusive. We began the process of rolling it out with a talk to pupils from Year 11 and 12, and their house parents, about what restorative justice should look like in the school context. The basic principles of the approach, as outlined above, could be put into practice in countless ways, so it was important that it matches the ethos and values of each boarding house, as well as that of the school.
In this session, we identified areas where the scheme would be appropriately used, and developed some case-study scenarios as to how the approach might play out in those instances. This was done collectively, with equal voice given to all parties.
For example, we decided that if a pupil was excluded from a friendship group, then that pupil, together with the other members of the group, would come together to discuss the “ripple” effect of this exclusion.
Following the initial conversation, we ran sessions in the house to explain to younger pupils what we were trying to achieve and why. It was then up to the boarding house – boarding parents and students alike – to decide what the core values for their boarding house would be. Across our houses, these have included: respect, honesty, cleanliness, communication, support, accountability, empathy and sensitivity.
The platform from which restorative justice can work was then in place: students would live by and adhere to the core values. Any restorative conversations were to revolve around behaviour counter to those values and return to re-enforce those values. As the students had decided those values, we already had buy-in.
From there, the principle is very much that it is run by the senior pupils. They are trained in how to talk through and resolve conflict or issues that might lead to conflict. This means they take the role usually filled by the teacher or house parent.
If students have a problem, they go to one of the senior students for resolution and a conversation happens between the relevant students. If a teacher identifies a problem, then either it is referred to one of the senior students for resolution or the teacher/house parent assumes the same role.
Guidance is given on the more serious types of offence that must be referred to a member of staff. An example was where unkind comments were placed on social media by a number of pupils. To emphasise the seriousness and detrimental effect of their actions, a member of staff talked through the effects of their behaviour with the group to make sure they understood that this must not happen again. This is still using the restorative-justice approach.
No recipe for chaos
When this new system was first presented to house parents and then to pupils, there was some scepticism. In the past, sanctions have been imposed where procedures were not followed or where there had been unacceptable behaviour. It was initially felt that, if these sanctions were removed, chaos would follow. It was soon discovered that this was not the case. In fact, the number of issues that would in the past have incurred a sanction have reduced. Pupils felt the weight of responsibility if they let other pupils or the house staff down.
Where that does not happen – or where the approach does not work as effectively as we would like – those pupils are invited to attend an individual session with their head of year to discuss what has happened and how to move it forward. We call these sessions positive behavioural management – or PBMs – and we believe that, in many cases, they prevent the pupils from repeating the same offence or committing more serious ones.
In short, restorative justice has worked and we are looking to expand it. We are not intending to abolish sanctions for more serious offences, just as society as a whole would not – there need to be parameters. But we believe that, by buying into this way of thinking and acting, we are creating a stronger sense of community and wellbeing – and pupils are more motivated to behave as we would like them to.
Marlene Fleming is deputy headteacher at Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex