Harnessing parent power for restorative schools
As my daughter moves through the primary school where I'm also a governor, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the challenges of imposing discipline positively and constructively in a school environment, while also addressing the concerns of parents whose children have been affected by problematic behaviour.
It’s important to recognise that even relatively minor incidents can have a significant impact on children. They’re vulnerable, and bullying in particular can be extremely harmful. Parents, who have to pick up the pieces, are acutely aware of this and - often feeling frustrated at being unable to tackle the problem themselves - want the school to do something. And in my experience most parents, without anything else to fall back on, expect traditional forms of punishment to be deployed.
Yet we know that traditional forms of school punishment, and exclusion in particular, do little to tackle the causes of the initial issue, prevent its recurrence, or help equip the young people themselves with the tools to deal with future harm and conflict. We also know that restorative practice can be an extremely effective way of dealing with conflict between children and preventing it from recurring. For example, at Monmouth Comprehensive School, which has implemented a whole-school approach to restorative practice, exclusions have dropped by 92%, attendance is up and results have improved significantly.
So how do we get fewer schools resorting immediately to traditional forms of discipline and instead using restorative approaches?
Clearly there is work to do to promote restorative practice to teachers, school governors and young people themselves. The Department for Education has a role to play, as does Ofsted. But if we really want to see restorative practice at the heart of the way that schools deal with conflict between young people, then we also need a strategy for winning over parents to this way of thinking. That way, when a child is bullied in the school playground, their parents won’t be getting in touch with the school to ask why the bully hasn’t been excluded. Instead, they’ll be demanding a restorative process. And schools should, and do, respond to what parents want.
So what do we need to have in place to run a campaign targeting this group? Firstly, we need evidence. Parents listen to evidence, just like anyone else. There is currently a major randomised control trial on schools’ use of restorative practice underway. This should, in time, provide robust evidence. But in the meantime there is some evidence available and it’s very promising. To complement this, and put a human face on the numbers, we also need case studies – examples of where restorative practice has made a real difference to the lives of individual pupils. If any of our members can help by providing these we would be, as always, very grateful.
Finally, we need a way to access parents. This may be the most difficult element. Parents of school-aged children are not a homogenous group of people who are easy to reach. One route might be through parent teacher associations and their national body, PTA UK. Parent governors may also be a potential link. But targeting Mumsnet, and other places where parents congregate online including Facebook, might be a more efficient way to access large numbers of parents quickly. And that is what we’ll need to do if we want restorative practice to take hold across the education system. Because the reality is that if we want schools to be able to implement restorative practice without causing an outcry, we need parents onside. As the national body for restorative practice, it’s up to us to win them over.