When a former police chief said this month that a restorative justice pilot scheme had halved school exclusions, it caused a stir - and begged a couple of questions. How does a system designed to make criminals confront their actions work in schools? And if it produces such spectacular results, why isn't it in use across the country?
Sir Charles Pollard, former chief constable of the Thames Valley region, who has been working on restorative approaches in challenging schools, says the answer to these questions is threefold.
"The restorative method is a different paradigm from wrongdoing and punishment," he says. "It's about how every wrongdoing is also a conflict, and how can you solve that if you keep people apart? It's such a change of mindset that it's not easy to take on board."
Second, it is not a quick fix. "Heads need to be totally committed," he says. "They need to change their disciplinary system. But it takes no more time to implement than any major change - it depends on how much importance they give it."
Third, he blames government apathy and red tape for failure to promote the system in schools.
Dr Belinda Hopkins is working on the scheme with Sir Charles as part of the Restorative Justice Consortium (RJC), a national body for groups interested in the approach. She says one of the most crucial differences between using the methods with criminals and schoolchildren is that the pupils volunteer to do it. "It's about the opportunity to put things right that gives kids back a feeling of self-esteem after misbehaviour - they are not labelled or excluded," she says.
Restorative justice includes whole-school training designed to prevent conflict, "conferences" held after an incident, in which two parties meet to discuss and resolve an issue, and "class conferences", which tackle a whole-class problem.
A trained facilitator, who could be a teacher, learning assistant, or even another student, mediates in a non-judgemental way to resolve the issue.
"The very process of bringing two sides together and talking things through is enormously cathartic," she says. "Children very rarely refuse to engage with this, even though it's indisputably tough. Often it is argued that there is still not enough evidence that restorative systems work. But where is the evidence that a punitive behaviour policy makes a difference?"
Dr Hopkins' point is reinforced by the experience of Brislington Enterprise College, which serves a deprived area of Bristol. The college, which has several learning communities - 11-16, post-16, a unit for the physically impaired and an autistic spectrum disorder centre - had previously tried assertive discipline using escalating sanctions. But headteacher John Matthews says the system was not working for the whole community.
"We moved into the RJC pilot and worked at developing a non- confrontational approach," he says. "It was a way of giving students and adults in our learning community a voice. Exclusions plummeted. In 2007- 08, there were 280 fixed-term exclusion days, compared with 611 the previous year."
Lynette Newman, Brislington's director of student services, says training has been extended to pupils this year, so there is one person in each learning community who can facilitate conferences.
As a whole-school policy, the approach ties in with distributed leadership among pupils and peer mentoring. It also embodies the ideas taught in the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme.
But teachers' attitude must also change - and that, says Dr Hopkins, is one reason why the system has been slow to spread.
"There are some deeply ingrained thoughts about punishment in this country - even the Department for Children, Schools and Families says there should be a behaviour policy with rewards and sanctions," she says.
"There is still little on behaviour management in teacher training, which means that teachers learn from colleagues around them and respond as they were taught, often passing on almost Victorian attitudes. A change of mindset is vital."
Helen Flanagan, a member of the RJC's education advisory group who was responsible for encouraging 15 Merseyside schools to sign up to the programme, goes further. She sees a dislocation between support for Seal and the failure of government and training bodies to see its relevance to behaviour management.
"You can't teach Seal and then go down the retributive route," she says. "The National College for School Leadership and the Training and Development Agency need to consider the massive implications of the success of our project."
The agencies say they are reluctant to endorse any one method of managing behaviour, and that school leaders should choose the method that suits their school best.
But Ms Flanagan says heads cannot choose if they haven't been taught how to use restorative methods and assess their value.
She concedes that setting up such an ethos is not the quick fix sought by teachers under pressure. The initial training requires staff to take time off to attend courses. Preparing for a restorative conference also needs time and effort.
Some young people, particularly those from difficult backgrounds, may not have the emotional literacy needed to connect with the method. But its supporters say these pupils are a tiny minority. And when it works, the benefits often spread to parents and friends.
But sceptics remain. The Scottish local authorities are looking at adopting the system, but having tried it successfully in three councils, Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the nation's main teaching union, says not all teachers feel comfortable with the approach.
"There are maybe some teachers who don't take the view that the nature of the relationships between themselves and pupils is one where they should have to negotiate . standards of behaviour," he says.
"The reality is that in the world outside school, (pupils) will learn that in many circumstances this is not how the world operates."
Sparing the rod, page 36
Restorative justice requires a totally different approach to discipline. When dealing with pupil misbehaviour you need to ask:
- Does your response model the skills of social and emotional literacy?
- Do you invite students to give you their perspective?
- Do you express sincere curiosity about their thoughts and feelings during the incident and since?
- Do you ask them to think who else may have been affected or involved?
- Do you encourage them to identify what needs to happen to put things right?
- Do you invite them to think about what their own needs are for closure and repair?
- Do you encourage constructive dialogue by refraining from:
using your body or tone to threaten or show disapproval;
giving your own opinion about what has happened;
assuming you know what has happened;
telling people what to do;
offering unasked-for advice;
insisting people apologise and make up?
Source: Belinda Hopkins, director of Transforming Conflict
New approach is a problem halved
Mandy Thompson is very clear about the change restorative solutions have brought to her school.
"Since last year, fixed-term exclusions have halved, the number of incident referral sheets has dropped and results are up 11 percentage points," says the assistant head in charge of behaviour at Ormesby School in Middlesbrough.
Above all, the system has simply made the school a better place to be - for both children and staff, she says.
"I am convinced the system only works if it is implemented as a whole- school approach, not as a reactive one. Our children now say they feel valued, and often don't need the intervention of adults to sort issues out," she says.
Ormesby has the typical problems of deprived inner-city schools: children lack reading and social skills and there is a high incidence of family breakdown. As a result, the school used to be reluctant to push pupils too hard. But when Ms Thompson started in 2006, it was clear something had to be done.
She attended training sessions with Belinda Hopkins, director of Transforming Conflict, a training company, and young people who had experienced the conference method of resolving disagreements or healing wrongdoing.
The process, she says, "speaks for itself". Little more than a year later, 22 members of Ormesby's staff have been trained in restorative practice.
Ms Thompson admits that the training is time-consuming, but says it was made easier because a number of the staff involved - heads of year, for example - did not have teaching duties that had to be covered.