Actions, consequences and responsibilities

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Facing up to the effects of harm and hurt is never a soft option, says Belinda Hopkins, director of a teachers' course in restorative justice. The ultimate aim is to get pupils to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the consequences and apologise to their victims.

This is the basic model for restorative practices being piloted in North Lanarkshire, Fife and Highland. The Scottish Executive is funding the pilots with pound;150,000 in total, but further funding will be available to roll out the programme if it is successful.

The idea originated in the criminal justice system and it puts repairing the harm done to people above the need to assign blame and dispense punishment.

North Lanarkshire has almost completed its first eight-day course on restorative practices for 14 teachers, led by Ms Hopkins, a former teacher and now director of the Berkshire-based company Transforming Conflict. The authority hopes to have trained 40 people in the first wave by the end of the academic session. Each one will become a trainer, passing on both skills and ethos to other teachers and, crucially, to pupils who may then become peer mediators.

It is part of education for citizenship, says Brian Steele, a senior educational psychologist. "It's about social education and enabling young people to deal with conflict and it links naturally to emotional literacy and cognitive social skills.

"It is a necessary strand to support social inclusion and Better Behaviour, Better Learning. It's one of a number of practices to support andor lead intervention to assist children and adolescents to acquire pro-social responses.

"We've veered away from a punitive system because punishment does not solve the problem or issues which surround the incident. Punishment may be a need that remains in the system, at least for serious incidents, but the main aim is to resolve the given issue."

Critics may protest that restorative justice is a soft option but Ms Hopkins argues: "Facing up to the effects of harm and hurt is never a soft option."

She says that in her work with criminals (including burglars and arsonists) in the Thames Valley district, she has not encountered one offender yet who finds facing up to the consequences of his or her actions and the victims easy.

"But we must be careful in schools," she warns. "Restorative practices must not be seen simply as a tool to be used on wrong-doers. It needs to become part of the ethos of the school, an ethos which says we must learn to respect others."

'I can see beyond the anger now'

Belinda Hopkins course director Transforming Conflict

"It's great having so many management people on the course because restorative practices just won't work without the full support of the senior management team.

"This is the first time I've done training sessions in Scotland. All the participants kept telling me the Scots don't or won't talk about their feelings. Yet here they all were supporting each other, creating a safe space to express feelings and being totally honest, open and warm."

Anne McCrossan headteacher Holy Family Primary, Mossend

"This should be introduced in teacher training or induction because if you learned these skills there would be better communication between teachers, pupils and parents. It should be embedded in the system as early as possible.

"Teachers have seen themselves for years as the ones in control. But we're not. We have to take on board others' points of view and needs.

"It might mean we're less authoritarian as a result, but I think we'll gain more respect from pupils and that will have a knock-on effect.

"A lot of parents today have a negative view of school because of their own experience of authoritarian schooling. Hopefully, this will help change that cycle."

Catherine Corrins depute headteacher St Andrew's Primary, Airdrie

"Restorative justice could have a dramatic impact in the school and spill into the community.

"I think it will change the pattern where the same problem is dealt with by the same punishment time and again because all parties are involved together and each has equal opportunity to speak and to move forward.

"It gives pupils the opportunity to see the other side of the problem, to learn from that and take those skills into the wider community as they grow older.

"It prevents the harbouring of hurts or resentments that can lead to physical, violent expression. It gives the chance to say 'I've been hurt' or 'I didn't realise I'd hurt you so badly. What can we do to repair things?'

"Talking about your feelings is not a soft option, especially if it's face to face with someone you've hurt or injured and means acknowledging the effects of what you've done.

"It's of great value and I will do things differently."

Susan Taggart depute headteacher St Edward's Primary, Airdrie

"As well as acquiring the skills, you need to believe in the philosophy to make it work.

"More and more we are working in schools with children who need the opportunity to resolve conflict, build relationships and move on. This is about giving pupils the language to deal with conflict situations and to counter the physical culture of some of our communities.

"It links to personal and social development. The skills have to be taught.

They have to become part of the culture of the school and, indeed, of the community.

"To be a mediator you have to be yourself. It's not about acting a role.

Children would see through that. You need to be genuine and do it your own way."

Marion McFadyen depute headteacher Calder Primary, Motherwell

"It's a very practical course, teaching skills we'll use in mediation: how to listen with empathy and not in a judgmental way.

"It'll impact on my personal life as much as my professional and it's certainly changed the way I look at an angry child. I can see beyond the anger now, I hope.

"It requires quiet time with the child, so for practical purposes - because of time and class cover demands - I don't think class teachers can be mediators. You'd need to free them up and cover classes.

"I do think it'll bring more calmness to the discipline aspect of the school and a new framework of security. That sounds huge but it is huge."

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