'Behave or else'? No, let's mediate

30th October 2009 at 00:00
'Restorative justice' is found to deliver improved attendance and fewer exclusions

A research project has claimed that the wholesale rejection of punishment in schools leads to significant improvements in attendance and a reduction in exclusions.

The study, by academics at King's College London using data from schools in Bristol, concluded that a "restorative justice" mediative approach produced better outcomes than traditional alternatives.

Restorative approaches (RA) use meetings between staff and students or bullies and victims to solve problems instead of simply handing out punishments.

The schools were in a part of Bristol characterised by high exclusions and low exam performance; all six of those involved had had a "significant" behavioural problems. Following the adoption of restorative justice mediation, one of the schools reported a 50 per cent drop in exclusions.

The study found that traditional forms of punishment are now only used as a last resort. However, a "minority" of teachers and pupils were resistant to restorative approaches, an attitude backed by some traditional lobby groups.

But attendance has improved in all the schools involved, and victims report feeling that they now have a "voice".

Half of all pupils felt that RA led to a reduction in bullying and improved relationships with their peers. Teachers said they felt more "emotionally literate" and that pupils took more responsibility for their own behaviour - but they were concerned about finding time to run mediation sessions.

However, the researchers also found that the technique does not work for pupils totally disengaged from school. For example, one 15-year-old said: "Sometimes even if things have been sorted out, you leave there even more pissed off because you've wasted a whole day talking to people you hate."

But Belinda Hopkins, who trains teachers in RA, says some schools have been so successful they no longer need to use sanctions.

She estimates that around one-third of local authorities are using mediation in schools. In addition, many are exploring the technique on their own initiative.

"The system of linking behaviour to punishment and rewards is outmoded," she said. "We need to give children more responsibility, which also fits in with the Every Child Matters approach."

But Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union NASUWT, is concerned that pupils may believe that mediation without punishment is a "soft" option.

"All that signals is what they have done is OK if there is no severe penalty," she said.

"In it's place it can be helpful, but it's not a substitute for sanctions, such as exclusion in severe cases. Schools have got to use common sense and not undermine teachers."

BUGGED BY LICE

The fight left two Year 7 pupils in tears, but mediation allowed the children, from Orchard School Bristol, to admit that the row stemmed from woodlice.

"It made them realise how silly the situation was," said deputy head Dorian Coxon. Mr Coxon has also started using the technique with parents and children to resolve difficult situations at home.

Year 11 pupils have been trained in RA techniques and are called in to help younger children.

"Teenagers need to learn from their experiences, and sanctions don't help with that," Mr Coxon said.

"It has changed our ethos. We went from having the highest number of exclusions in the city - 40 in each term - to one of the lowest. This term there have been 12. Children no longer shout at each other as if they were on EastEnders."

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