Trial restorative justice to bring pupils to order

It can be tempting to punish first and ask questions later, but making discipline a two-way process has many advantages

Andrew is lying in the playground, making a noise that reminds me of large seal I once came across on a solitary walk around the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It is a hauntingly melancholic cry that encapsulates the pain of the innocent victim. But after five unrelenting minutes it begins to do your head in.

Statistically, more crimes are committed during a single lunchtime at a primary school than on a Saturday night in Glasgow (the evidence for this, I admit, is my experience alone). This particular offence involved Ryan kicking Andrew in the stomach. I suspect it was an act of revenge for something that happened earlier.

Under the cover of my maths lesson, Ryan crash-tested his Ferrari Testarossa toy into a delicate area of Andrew. Upset at being a hit-and-run victim, Andrew immediately ratted on him. Desperate not to have my fraction-matching exercise disrupted, I summarily impounded the offending vehicle until further notice and sentenced the driver to solitary confinement over playtime. That should have been the end of the matter. It wasn't.

Progressing towards peace

When Mahatma Gandhi famously said "We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party", I'm not sure he had Andrew and Ryan in mind. However, the principle is the same. Summary forms of justice decided unilaterally by the teacher may seem quick and easy but sometimes they are neither. In hindsight, the case of Andrew versus Ryan would probably have benefited from a restorative approach.

This method for sorting out classroom conflicts relies on getting the victim and offender to negotiate and agree on a resolution. They do this under the guidance of a trained mediator. The advantage of such an approach is that it allows each party to view the incident from the other's perspective. This in turn leads to a fair and lasting settlement.

In reality, this presents two main challenges for primary teachers. The first one is the question of whether young children have the emotional maturity to understand feelings at anything other than a superficial level. For example, Ryan will express the deepest remorse and make the most heartfelt promises if it will help expedite his return to the playground. But is he really sorry? Does he really mean it? Or is he just going through the (e)motions?

The second challenge is a mathematical one. The time required to apply restorative justice to a particular incident (negotiation plus restoration plus reconciliation) is generally much longer than the time available to sort it out (non-teaching hours divided by the number of conflicts), which can be measured in nanoseconds.

In other words, if I resolved every class dispute using a restorative approach I would have to abandon teaching the curriculum at about 9.30am on a Monday. Targets would be missed and I would be busking 1970s classics on the streets of Sheffield before you could say "capability procedures".

Choose your moments

The trick is to use the restorative principle when the situation calls for it. The first such occasion is when a problem in the classroom is persistent or escalates out of control. On these occasions, the issue invariably has an impact on the learning and behaviour of all the children. So it makes sense to include all of them in negotiations to resolve it.

The tried and trusted way to do this is by using circle time. The way that circle time is organised - with an emphasis on teamwork and fairness - helps to play down the idea of punishment and promotes reconciliation. And, best of all, Ryan can't speak unless he's holding the beanbag.

The second appropriate arena for restorative practice is at lunch. It is at this point that antisocial behaviour reaches its peak. While teachers sneak a few minutes to clear up, set up, eat lunch and have a nervous breakdown, the forces of darkness invade. And you can't have circle time with the entire school so there has to be another way.

Hence a strange phenomenon has been witnessed in our school playground. A number of our older students have been spotted wandering around looking for trouble. So what's new? The answer is they are all wearing high-vis vests bearing the title "Peer Mediator". These children are trained in conflict resolution. They are not looking to cause problems but to solve them. And they mostly do a good job.

"We have to promise not to take sides, tell children what to do or gossip," explains peer mediator Helen. "Their rules are to listen to each other, keep calm and not shout."

"And how are you getting on with Andrew and Ryan?" I ask.

"It's a difficult one because I can't tell what Andrew is saying," she replies.

"And what does Ryan say?" I enquire.

She points to the words on her notepad. They are mostly unrepeatable.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England

What else?

A video of a lecture from the Royal Society of Arts explores restorative justice in schools


Encourage students to reflect on their actions during detention.


Teachers TV takes a look at restorative justice in action.


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