Mending fences

5th October 2007 at 01:00
Badly behaved pupils must be forced to face up to their misconduct. Restorative practices are paying dividends in some schools

EXCLUSIONS HAVE more than halved at Buckhaven High in Fife since restorative practices were introduced and pupils there forced to face up to the consequences of their bad behaviour.

But, if schools are considering introducing restorative practices they have to be in it for the long haul, the Building Relationships and Managing Behaviour conference in Edinburgh heard last week.

Brian Steele, principal educational psychologist for North Lanarkshire, estimated it took up to five years for restorative practices to become completely embedded in schools. He said this was because restorative practices, which use meetings, mediation and conferences to reduce conflict in schools, had to be fundamentally rooted in a school's philosophy.

"To embed restorative practices in schools, it's not enough that half a dozen people acquire some techniques. The most important aspect is developing a philosophy, a set of values or approaches that people are guided by. And, like all organisational change, that does not happen overnight it can take three to five years," said Mr Steele.

Research has shown that teachers, particularly in secondary, remain sceptical about the benefits of restorative practices.

Staff at Larbert High near Falkirk thought the approach would be too time consuming. One year on, however, and their fears have proved unfounded, said Andrene Bamford, principal teacher of behaviour support.

"The main concern our teachers had was that there was no time for the restorative conversation," she said. "But when you think about the time it takes to write out the punishment exercise, explain why they are getting it and give them the row, it's as much time as it takes to say: 'What happened there? How are you going to put things right?'"

The best way to get teachers on-side, according to Isla Lumsden, who introduced the approach at Buckhaven High, was to demonstrate how well it could work.

Buckhaven High became involved in the restorative practices national pilot in 2004, which involved three councils. Rather than taking a whole-school approach, however, its management decided to start small and use restorative practices to manage the most challenging pupils. As a result, exclusion rates have fallen dramatically, dropping from 325 at the outset to 199 last year. By this term, exclusions had dropped by 65 per cent.

"The people who have gone through the process the staff and the pupils are the best exponents of this," said Ms Lumsden. "The way to sell it to staff is definitely just to allow them to experience it and see how well it works."

CASE STUDY

Two 15-year-old boys were involved in a fight organised via MSN inside school. Two staff members had to break up the fight, which resulted in the exclusion of both boys due to the serious nature of the incident.

The school staff met to discuss how a restorative approach might help. They felt that telling the boys how their behaviour had affected them would be beneficial.

The boys agreed to take part in a restorative conference along with their parents. The conference made the boys face up to what they had done and allowed them to hear how their actions had affected others. They apologised and gave a commitment not to get into a similar situation in the future.

The boys admitted that without the meeting there might have been another fight or "someone being attacked" and that "things would have been left unsaid".

* Information provided by the community justice organisation SACRO, which has been running restorative practices pilots in schools since June 2006.

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