Facing up to the consequences

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
Restorative practices sound fluffy, but can they be used to avoid exclusion? Yes, says Fiona Carnie

Joey is giving a presentation about the fragility of the human body. He is explaining what can happen if someone receives a blow to the head.

Last month, Joey was caught attacking another pupil in the park. His case is being dealt with by the police, but since both students are pupils at the RSA Academy in Tipton, West Midlands, he has also been referred to the academy tribunal. The tribunal, set up by the academy's student parliament, offers an alternative to exclusion and only the most serious cases are referred.

Senior staff, trained students and the community police officer meet with the offender and his or her parents to discuss what has happened and decide how the student might be helped to change their behaviour and make amends.

In Joey's case, he has had to conduct an extended piece of research into the causes and effects of violent behaviour and present his findings. He has also attended a restorative conference with the victim, and his parents have attended a parenting course at the academy. The tribunal is definitely not a soft option.

Two years ago, restorative practices were introduced to address negative behaviour and the academy is now seeing the benefits. This approach, which started in the criminal justice system, provides a framework whereby people are held to account for their offence. Instead of issuing fines or prison sentences, it brings perpetrators face to face with the consequences of their wrongdoing and gives them the opportunity to make up for the harm done.

So, for example, a group of vandals who had damaged a shop might meet the shopkeeper to hear how their actions had affected his life and his livelihood, and they would have the opportunity to apologise and to repair the damage. Research has indicated that offenders who go through a restorative process are less likely to reoffend.

In a school setting, restorative practices are used in place of a punitive approach to behaviour management. Instead of issuing punishments, teachers talk to pupils about what they have done wrong and discuss with them what they need to do to put things right. It is important that the consequence bears some relation to the wrongdoing.

Restorative practices can be used in a number of ways. For example, if a child has bullied a peer it can be very powerful for the two children to be brought together with their respective parents and an independent adult to discuss what has happened and how this has caused everyone to feel. Through a carefully structured conversation, a way forward can often be found to address the issues that have been raised. This is generally more effective than merely punishing the bully. It can be a salutary experience for young people to have to face up to the impact of their actions on others. It can be a helpful process for the victim as well.

As another example, if a child has disrupted a class, a detention requiring them to stay behind after school for an hour to complete work is unlikely to dissuade them from such behaviour. But a discussion within class time in which the child hears how classmates feel about their lesson being disrupted and how it makes the teacher feel is more likely to work. Pupils who think their behaviour is clever and amuses their peers get quite a shock when they discover that their classmates find them tiresome.

This approach works in the main because it makes people reflect on what they have done and how this has affected others. At root, restorative practices are about developing a sense of community where all members - adults and children alike - are encouraged to think about and care for other people.

To be effective, a whole-school commitment is required. Minor infringements may be dealt with by senior students, whereas more serious incidents will be dealt with by senior staff. It can be seen as a continuum: at one end, children are encouraged to think and talk about their thoughts, feelings and attitudes openly with their peers and teacher; at the other end, the academy tribunal deals with the most serious offences.

It is important that all staff receive some training, and this includes support staff. Those staff and senior students who are going to deal with incidents will require more in-depth training. All pupils in the school need to be taught about this approach so that they are clear about how and why it is being introduced. Parents, too, need to be kept informed.

Thought needs to be put into how restorative practices can be introduced and embedded most effectively. But schools that are taking the time to do this are reaping the rewards.

So what happens if Joey reoffends? We are pretty sure that he won't.

Fiona Carnie is director of partnerships at the RSA Academy in Tipton, West Midlands.

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