Be firm but fair and constructive

10th October 2003 at 01:00
North Lanarkshire aims to change teachers' mindset towards restorative practices of justice, writes Douglas Blane

Children seem to come equipped with built-in justice meters.

"That's not fair" is perhaps the commonest phrase on the lips of youngsters everywhere. Adults, on the other hand, continue to try to reach agreement about what constitutes justice.

Indeed, if the restorative practices movement - whose principles are about to be tried out in North Lanarkshire schools - has got it right, most modern societies operate a system of justice that is crude, simplistic and ineffective.

"Punishment is usually seen as the most appropriate response to crime and to wrongdoing in schools, families and workplaces," says Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices. "Those who fail to punish naughty children and offending youths and adults are often labelled as permissive."

But this one-dimensional model - with punitive responses to inappropriate behaviour at one end and permissive at the other - fails to reflect the wider range of possibilities available.

North Lanarkshire's educational psychologist, Brian Steele, explains. "If you impose high levels of control and provide low support, that is punitive, while high support and low control is permissive. That is the traditional model.

"But there are actually two other possibilities: low control and low support, which is neglect, and high levels of control and support. That's the area we are interested in because that is where restorative practices lie."

Agnes Donnelly, the authority's inclusion support base co-ordinator, emphasises that this approach is not simply another initiative. Developed and tested with considerable success in schools in other countries, including the United States and Australia, it is by no means a new set of ideas.

"As a teacher myself, I regard a lot of this as the way teachers operate when they are at their best. By providing training in restorative practices we're trying to help teachers be at their best in dealing with conflict more often and more consistently by making them aware of the underlying philosophy and structures that work."

For Mr Steele this is the critical issue: the punitive approach simply does not work. "If all you do is look for guilty parties and punish them, you end up with more people in prison, more kids excluded from school. You don't reduce crime and you don't change the offending behaviour," he says.

Restorative practices have been tried in the UK within the justice system, explicitly in the Thames Valley, for example, and implicitly in Scotland's children's panel system. As far as North Lanarkshire is aware, it has not been tried within education.

The authority's plan is to provide 40 teachers with eight days of training from the Berkshire organisation Transforming Conflict at a cost of pound;16,000 from the Scottish Executive's Better Behaviour, Better Learning fund. It is an ambitious plan because the teachers will learn how to train others, with a view to disseminating the restorative philosophy around North Lanarkshire and embedding it in every school.

This is important, says Ms Donnelly, because the long-term aim is not simply to put a few more techniques in a teacher's toolbox but to produce "a change in culture, a different mindset".

Mr Steele points out that when people are asked what type of teacher did most for them when they were at school, they usually say something like: I remember Mr So-and-So; he was awfully firm but he was fair.

"Restorative practices are firm but fair," he says. "They hold people to account but they also provide the support they need to meet the demands the school or community makes of them. They are not a soft option."


The International Institute for Restorative Practices advises anyone meting out punishment to:

* foster awareness. Ask questions that raise awareness of how others have been affected. Try to allow victims to express their feelings to offenders.

* avoid scolding. Offenders feel empathy when exposed to how others have been affected by their behaviour. When scolded, they see themselves as victims.

* involve offenders actively. In punitive intervention offenders are passive. In restorative intervention they are active and accountable, listening to victims, deciding how to repair harm done, trying to keep commitments.

* accept ambiguity. Fault may be unclear but progress is still possible.

* separate the deed from the doer. The idea is to signal recognition of an offender's worth but disapproval of the wrongdoing.

* see every instance of bad behaviour or conflict as an opportunity for learning. Turn negative incidents into constructive events by trying to build empathy and a sense of community, which reduces the chance of future incidents.


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