Comments about restorative practice, or restorative justice, often seem to cause a stir. It is seen by some as a binary choice, RP on one hand, detentions etc on the other, but that is probably not the reality. My trigger for this post was a short tweet thread by Tom Bennett, in which he starts with the premise that it is a useful tool in a box of many. But, he says, it is often done badly.

Having worked in a school that used an RP/RJ approach, that is certainly my experience. With no training, other than a brief after school session, I was expected to sit down with students and explore why they had misbehaved during the lesson. Quite often, they responded with “I was bored”. If you plan your lessons better so that they are more fun/engaging, your behaviour issues will resolve themselves, I was told by more senior colleagues (want to play guess the year?). The irony, of course, is that I could have been planning more “fun and engaging lessons” (whatever that means) if my time wasn’t being spent having a fruitless conversation with poorly behaved students.

I use the word ‘fruitless’ because that is typically what it was. I had no training in how to deliver RP. I had no inclination to deliver RP. And perhaps most importantly, the child typically had no interest in engaging in an RP conversation. They made absolutely no impact.

Not too long ago a local radio station did a series on RJ at the local HMP. Beside the fact that the system was designed for prisons, not schools, several things stood out to me:

  1. Both parties had to be willing participants, the victim and the perpetrator.

2. The perpetrator had to be prepared to take responsibility for their actions and be able to articulate the reasons for their actions.

3. The perpetrator had to demonstrate remorse and a willingness to change.

4. The victim had to be willing to listen and forgive, or at least understand.

5. The conversation had to be adjudicated by a trained professional.

6. The RP did not replace or shorten the prison sentence.

I’ll now elaborate on these, starting with point one. The offender and the victim had to both be willing to participate in the RP conversation. If either was not willing, the conversation did not happen. It would have been a waste of time for all involved, and at best have affected nothing. To quote the Victim Care Merseyside website, “restorative justice is entirely voluntary, and you are free to withdraw at any time“. A forced conversation in which one party is not willing could actually lead to worsened feelings for one side or both. And so, when applying to schools, any sort of routine or compulsory RP conversation should immediately be discounted.

Point two: We are all irrational. Humans, as a species, act on impulses and emotions. Our reasoning is used to justify our actions after the fact. If adults are largely incapable of reasoned actions, should we really expect children to be able to clearly articulate the reasons for their actions?

“Why did you throw that glue stick, John?”

“I don’t know”

The reality is, he probably doesn’t. He acted on an impulse when the moment presented itself. I was at times an angry and confused child; I did some stupid things that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. As an adult, I am able to look back and explain the events that may have precipitated my feelings. As a child, I was not able to do that, or perhaps I would simply have been to embarrassed to reveal the events that had caused such feelings. Had I been asked to sit down and explain my actions, my response would most likely have been a passive “I don’t know”, “I was bored”, etc.

Three: If the perpetrator is unwilling to recognise their part in wrong doing, an RP conversation is at best a waste of time. At worst, it may actively make the victim feel worse. As a teacher being expected to carry out RP conversations, that was certainly my experience. A child showing absolutely no remorse being given the opportunity to explain their actions was tantamount to the opportunity to continue their wrong doing. Imagine you are the victim of bullying, and you are forced to sit with your bully and they are given the opportunity to explain exactly what it is about you that causes them to bully you. I’m sure you’ll come away from that feeling great. Again, to quote the Victim Care Merseyside site:

“Restorative Justice can only be used when the offender accepts responsibility for the crime and the victim agrees to a restorative approach. Victim participation is always voluntary, based entirely on the victim’s informed choice and delivered at a pace to suit the individual.”

Four: See one. RP hinges entirely on the victim being prepared to engage in the conversation. They cannot be forced.

Five: Reading a book and attending a conference does not make you a trained professional in RP. That person then delivering some in-house CPD on RP procedures certainly does not make the staff body trained professionals in RP. But yet, this is exactly the route that some schools take, and then expect staff to routinely hold an RP sessions for every transgression. I’m sure some will take the opportunity to suggest it wasn’t done properly. But my experience matches the experiences of hundreds of other colleagues in many other schools. At what point do we enter the territory of no true Scotsman, not real socialism, etc? Those teaching 22hrs per week don’t need ideals, they need strategies and policies that work.

Six: During the radio series, the prisoners had made a commitment to changing their lives, and avoiding a future return to prison. The success rate in preventing re-offending was notable. But had these people already committed themselves to not re-offending, to changing their lives for the better? What influence did the RP conversation have in that? Would they have re-offended without the session? These questions cannot be answered, but the VCM website mentioned above does list a range of benefits for RJ:

Studies on restorative justice have highlighted:

  • 85% of victims who participated in face-to-face restorative justice were satisfied.
  • Restorative justice reduces the frequency of reoffending and led to £8 savings for every £1 spent.
  • 78% of victims that participated would recommend restorative justice to other victims.
  • Restorative justice reduced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms for victims.
  • Restorative justice has been found to significantly reduce levels of fear and anger in victims.

Assuming the above to be correct – unfortunately all claims are unreferenced so cannot be interrogated – the use of RJ appears to work well in prisons to prevent re-offending as part of a bigger process. It should also be pointed out that the prisoners had commited to changing their situations – negative influences and locations were removed from their lives, something not possible for a student surrounded by the same 1,000+ students, staff and buildings every day. So while it may work for willing prisoners, the above illustrates why it does not work in schools, at least not as a forced stand alone system. As a tool in a box of many, it might be useful; as a single tool in the box, it is as Bennett says, “as useless as a screwdriver sawing wood”.

If the sanction for misconduct is a ‘going-through-the-motions’, insincere conversation between perpetrator and victim, the message quickly spreads through the student body that they can do as they like without consequence. As Prof Haidt writes, “punishing bad behaviour promotes virtue and benefits the group… when the threat of punishment is removed, people behave selfishly”. RP may be useful in schools. But schools need adequate sanctions in order to function properly – compulsory RP alone is not that.