Lee and Simon, both 16 and big lads, had never thought about how their swaggering, I'll-show-who-matters-around-here style of behaviour in school affected their victims. As far as they were concerned, going into an internet chatroom for a protracted and nasty piece of sexual bullying of a fellow student and following it up with mocking phone texts was just cool entertainment.
But now they are sitting in an empty classroom at New Brompton college in Medway, Kent, talking about what they did, the threat of exclusion they faced when caught and how the school's restorative justice (RJ) programme has enabled them to meet their victim and recognise the distress they caused. Their modulated voices and lack of bravado are genuine, insist Jan Harsent and Alex Wilson, who head the school's social inclusion team. The boys have apologised, promised it will never happen again and have been at pains to make amends, adds Ms Harsent.
Simon nods: "Seeing how unhappy we'd made the boy and his mum didn't feel good. And she wasn't cross; just upset for her son." Lee agrees: "The conference was tough. I was forced to think about how it would have felt if it was me being picked on."
New Brompton college (formerly Upbury arts college) is one of six primary and 26 secondary schools in London, Blackpool, Oxford, Somerset, Barnet, North Lincolnshire and Rhonnda chosen by the Youth Justice Board, working with the Department for Education and Skills, to pilot its restorative justice programme. The aim is to find out if this approach to antisocial behaviour, in which pupils examine their actions, explore what has gone wrong and work out how to restore harmony, can cut the number of exclusions.
Youth Justice Board chair Rod Morgan says: "We know children excluded from school are much more likely to commit crime . We also know teachers cannot be expected to put up with poor behaviour and disruption in the classroom.
Restorative justice can be used to solve all types of issues, including bullying, name-calling, vandalism, theft, assault, teacher-pupil conflict and non-attendance, and can be used in place of fixed-term or permanent exclusion."
The RJ philosophy - often written into school policy - stems from the same root as emotional literacy. The idea is to help children understand their actions, take responsibility for them and find ways of resolving difficulties themselves. It is used for anything from bad behaviour in the classroom, when a teacher may be able to use the RJ approach on a one-to-one basis, to acrimonious stand-offs between pupils where some intervention is needed. Pupils who have to be taken out of the classroom may be dealt with by one or two staff members, possibly with the involvement of a trained peer mediator, to prevent the development of more serious antisocial behaviour.
The gravest offences, those likely to merit temporary or permanent exclusion, will almost always involve a full RJ conference, with perpetrator and victim, parents, teachers and, possibly, a police officer, all in attendance.
Schools using RJ talk of being startled at how responsive even their most challenging children have been after being given the chance to express themselves and participate in the process of justice.
It is lunchtime at Beacon Hill school in Blackpool and three girls sit around a table with Jackie Rollinson, an RJ project worker with the local youth offending team. She organises the early-stage work in restorative justice here - a daily session in which pupils can come together with her to work through problems before they become more serious. In this case, two of the girls, formerly good friends, have fallen out and accuse each other in high, screechy voices of saying "bad things" about them. Ms Rollinson's role is to monitor and, if necessary, guide what happens, but the mediator is another pupil who has trained in restorative justice methods and gives each girl a chance to say why she feels aggrieved, while the other listens.
When they are finished, the mediator asks if it is worth losing a once-valued friendship. The girls look at each other, pull wry faces and burst into giggles. No it's not, they say. It feels okay now they've had a chance to say what was bugging them.
But many of the problems schools face may be a good deal more complex than this, says Sue Hunter, restorative justice and victim co-ordinator at the Blackpool youth offender team, which runs the pilot in two schools. "If, for example, a young person is excluded from school, we see them and their parents and try to find out if there is a problem of, say, substance misuse, family difficulties or anything else underlying their behaviour.
Then we use the restorative approach to explore ways of getting the young person back into school."
Graham Robb was, until July this year, head of Drayton school in Banbury, Oxfordshire. He adopted the restorative justice approach there after a presentation given to the school by Lynda Hopkins, who does these sessions on behalf of Leap Confronting Conflict, a national voluntary youth organisation providing opportunities for young people and adults to explore approaches to conflicts in their lives. It made sense to him because, along with Ms Harsent, he is clear that confrontation and punishment have no valuable lasting effect in teaching children to behave better. It has made a great difference to the school, he says. Some 80 per cent of its conflicts are now successfully dealt with this way, exclusion rates have fallen steadily and the school's most recent Ofsted report praised Drayton's ethos . Mr Robb says it also provides an education in citizenship for life beyond school.
Drayton was in special measures in 2000 and learning centre manager Harriet Wall, working on RJ at the school, describes "lots of difficulties with inter-personal relationships, low self-esteem in many pupils, educational under-achievement and a lot of tensions between staff and pupils". Ofsted made it plain that the RJ initiative played a crucial part in getting the school out of special measures.
Dealing with racism can be especially challenging, so Mr Robb was delighted with the effectiveness of an RJ conference used with a boy who was racially abusive to a member of staff. He says: " We had the parents, the lad, a teacher and his representative. The conference was chaired by a police officer. The boy was bolshy at first but then, hearing his mother talk about the Asian friends she had at work and how it upset her to hear her son had been racially abusive, he was reduced to tears. That opened the door for him to apologise to the teacher, who accepted him back into class, and there was nothing more like that from him. What's more, it satisfied the teacher's union, which is rightly concerned about racism."
Of course, the programme has its failures. One teacher talks of a boy who went to a conference for his bullying and refused to apologise. On other occasions parents have walked out. Some teachers refuse to have a disruptive and offensive child back in the classroom. Or there are what Ms Hunter calls "acceptable" outcomes, as in the case of two boys made miserable by each other's nastiness and getting allies to bully each other.
They were brought together and given a chance to talk about their personalities, why they disliked each other and what pleased them. Out of this "they managed to establish a way they could be in the same room without being unpleasant to each other and that defused the problem", she says.
Ms Harsent tells of pupils asking for an RJ intervention, such as the Year 7 boy whose immediate response in a difficult situation had always been to punch. "The other day he came to me and said, 'well normally I'd hit him, but this time I'd like one of those thingy meetings because it's better'."
So far, then, the results are encouraging. A preliminary evaluation of the piloting schools published earlier this year showed that up to 95 per cent of disagreements and conflicts are resolved through restorative justice conferences and mediation. Mark Bitel at the Partners in Evaluation consultancy, which conducted the research, is following it up with a final report due shortly.
Leap, which is supporting the training of peer mediators in several new schools, sees restorative justice as an umbrella under which a range of conflict resolution initiatives can take place. Gemma Davis, young mediator network co-ordinator at Leap, says: "It is about putting the power in the hands of those involved in conflict and giving them the opportunity to work towards a positive outcome. Our underlying philosophy is that conflict, when worked with creatively, is an opportunity for growth and change."