Restorative justice in UK schools ‘could help reduce exclusions’

Research suggests exclusions are linked to long-term mental health problems. Photograph: (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo via The Guardian)

(Reposted from: The Guardian.  December 29, 2017)

Campaigners are urging the government to support the introduction of ‘restorative practice’ which prioritises conflict resolution over punishment in schools following alarm at an increase in the number of pupils being excluded.

The Restorative Justice Council (RJC), best known for its work in the criminal justice system bringing offenders face to face with their victims, wants to expand its existing work in schools as a means of reducing the number of exclusions.

Almost 6,700 children were permanently excluded from school in 2015-16, the equivalent of 35 children every school day, according to the latest government figures. Expulsion rates have risen every year since 2012-13.

According to the RJC, restorative practice in the context of schools includes a range of strategies that can be used to foster good relationships and resolve conflicts in a way that enhances insight and understanding in pupils and shapes better future behaviour.

The council is releasing three short films to promote the use of restorative practice in schools. They feature children in primary and secondary schools explaining how restorative justice works and their own contribution as “restorative ambassadors”, helping classmates to resolve conflicts and develop empathy.

The RJC’s aim is to stimulate debate about different approaches to discipline in schools, amid what appears to be growing support for zero-tolerance regimes that punish pupils for minor breaches of regulations.

Chris Straker, the RJC’s interim chief executive, said exclusions, both permanent and fixed-term, provided a swift, convenient sanction for schools seeking to address poor behaviour. But they often had a negative impact on the young person affected, who ended up losing time in school, compromising their education and employment prospects.

Research suggests exclusions are linked to long-term mental health problems and future criminal behaviour – more than half of UK prisoners were excluded from school. The RJC believes a restorative approach has long-term benefits for the individuals concerned and society as a whole.

Research suggests exclusions are linked to long-term mental health problems and future criminal behaviour – more than half of UK prisoners were excluded from school.

Straker, who was a teacher and headteacher for 33 years, understands the pressures that force schools to exclude pupils. “The pressure on schools is huge around progress and achievement,” he said. “If your shortcut to progress and achievement is to remove certain barriers from the school, and those barriers are young people who present particular problems for you … you remove everybody who is non-compliant and you end up with a school full of compliant children.

“But there’s a moral case to be made for schools to be meeting the needs of all children and young people.”

Straker described a typical flashpoint in a school: a pupil arrives late, a member of staff tells them off, the young person reacts negatively, either arguing or walking away, and the conflict swiftly escalates, leading to detentions and then exclusions.

With a restorative approach, that first meeting with a member of staff would seek to establish the reason for being late, Straker said. Perhaps they were late in the morning because they are young carers with responsibilities either to look after a parent or get siblings to school.

“It’s all about sharing information and understanding each other. In a punitive system, it’s not about the circumstances you come from, it’s about the fact that you’ve broken the rules.

“It’s a difficult one for a headteacher. You are under a huge amount of pressure to deliver and there’s very little time to do it. The punitive path gives you real clarity. Or do you take a path which may take slightly longer?

“If you get rid of five kids, it’s much easier to hit your GCSE targets. But what is the cost to the young people who are no longer in school? And what does it feel like for those young people?”

Ryan Gladwin is assistant headteacher at the Joseph Norton academy in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, which has 63 pupils aged between six and 17 with complex social, emotional and mental health needs whose behaviour can be extremely challenging.

Using a restorative approach had resulted in a massive reduction in the number of exclusions, he said. “We were very high with our exclusions four or five years ago. This year so far we have not had one exclusion.

“We know excluding our pupils is not an effective sanction. Often they have difficulties coming to school in any case. It creates shame within pupils – it reinforces negative feelings. With restorative practice, we’ve found that if you can start to address the feelings behind the behaviour, that starts to improve the behaviour.”

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