The common touch
The search for the magic answer to behaviour difficulties continues. Many have been suggested over the years, only to founder in the daily challenges of schooling.
The 2006 school survey on behaviour produced the usual mixture of opinion, most suggesting that indiscipline levels were about the same. Despite some concerns over violence, the majority were most irritated by the drip, drip of low-level disruption.
In 2004, as part of the Better Behaviour, Better Learning initiative, the Scottish Executive launched a 30-month pilot project in restorative practices in three authorities, each funded with about pound;45,000 annually, which has just been evaluated by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Restorative practices are a framework of values, practices and skills that have developed variously in schools, but share many features. The approach is different from community-based restorative justice, with professionals working exclusively with young offenders. In education, the school community - staff, pupils and sometimes parents - is involved; the focus is on developing ethos, practices and skills that reduce the possibilities of conflict and harm, and restoring relationships when there is conflict.
Practices include ethos-building; restorative language; problem-solving circles; shuttle and peer mediation; restorative meetings; and informal, class and formal conferences.
Primary schools focused a great deal on restorative language in interactions, using cards with scripts and posters. Most were developing playground projects, promoting good relationships through activities, with trained problem-solvers and peer mediators.
The atmosphere in most primaries became calmer and pupils generally more positive; they thought staff were fair and listened. Most staff were comfortable with the language and processes of restorative practices, identifying improvements in morale. Most schools showed a decrease in exclusions, in-school discipline referrals and out-of-school referrals.
There was clear evidence of children developing conflict resolution skills.
Most secondaries began with one part of the school or pupils with challenging behaviour. The degree of staff readiness influenced the approaches adopted, some opting for small-scale innovation, perhaps involving behaviour support or certain departments.
Progress may be slower in secondaries, because of their size and historic distinctions between subject and pastoral care staff. However, there was significant change in some and identifiable progress in most. Some staff were using restorative language, identifying significant changes in classroom climate. Some subject departments were developing restorative strategies.
Most secondaries used restorative meetings and mediation to address conflict between pupils and between staff and pupils. Several were increasing the involvement of pupils in buddying and anti-bullying initiatives.
Many were reviewing their disciplinary policies and procedures to become more restorative. Some schools also developed restorative conferences, where key staff met with a pupil and their family if there had been conflict or harm, using a formal structure to allow all concerned to express their views and to generate a restorative solution.
Such developments take time, as recognised by the Executive, which has extended the period of the pilots. Nevertheless, the evaluation shows evidence of substantial change in the schools studied. In half, there was strong evidence of improved relationships within the school community. In many others, there was a reduction in the number of playground incidents, discipline referrals, exclusions and the need for external support.
One feature of the successful schools was their willingness to reflect on practice and engage with change - when they saw the pilot project as a chance to think about what kind of school they wanted to be. Restorative practices were most effective when there was visible commitment, enthusiasm and modelling by school managers and where the school had invested in significant staff development.
Restorative practices are not the magic answer to behaviour issues in schools but they can clearly make a difference.