Restorative practice in schools: developing responsibility over conformity

The question of discipline in schools is in the media again. The focus point for the debate is a recently reopened academy in Great Yarmouth, which has introduced new behaviour guidelines to improve pupil performance. The leaked guidelines were viewed by some parents and commentators as ‘draconian’, and prompted several requests from parents to transfer children out of the school. The case, covered by the BBC and other national news organisations, led to much discussion on the question of how strict schools should be.

Schools’ policies and practices vary widely depending on intellectual, philosophical and organisational preferences. Fundamentally however, the goal of all schools is the same: to establish a climate for learning and facilitate the personal and emotional development of young people. Opinions vary on how best to achieve this. The head of the academy in Great Yarmouth has defended his policies, saying they’re necessary after the school achieved poor results in the summer and that the new policies will improve this. In this blog, I advocate for the value of restorative practices in schools, instead of a more punitive, retributive approach.

Restorative practice can become an explicit set of principles and practices that informs every communication in a school. The aim of restorative practice is to create a context where pupils engage actively in learning about their social behaviours, rather than acting as passive recipients of rules and sanctions.

In Great Yarmouth, the academy’s guidelines said that teachers were to be considered ‘unquestioned authority’. But is this helpful? I would argue that where pupils are passive recipients of rule-based cultures, social learning and development can be limited to social conditioning and compliance. You learn how to follow orders and avoid sanctions within specific situations, but how useful are these skills for young people in the long-term?

Restorative practice creates the conditions to promote the development of self-managing behaviours and positive attitudes to learning. Teachers engage disruptive pupils to make them aware of how they are affecting their own and others’ learning. Pupils are encouraged to develop an understanding of social responsibility, and given the responsibility to make things right. Where a pupil changes their behaviour in this context, it isn’t because of the threat of punishment. It’s because they are buying into the relationships they have with other pupils and teachers. This develops pupils who can make good choices regardless of whether a teacher, and the accompanying menu of sanctions, is present. These are transferable skills that pupils can take with them through their lives.

Restorative behaviours based on dialogue are already happening in many schools, with great success. It is time to ensure that such practices are explicit and not couched in apology or misconceptions of what restorative practice is. Restorative practice is not the ‘soft’ alternative to strict disciplinary regimes. Instead, it emphasises social learning over social compliance, responsibility over conformity and engagement over passivity. It is because restorative practice offers an engagement with self and others that it allows schools to develop a culture for learning that is a product of both the pupils and the staff.

The RJC wants to be part of affecting change within education by amplifying the voices and successes of practitioners in the field. To that end we invite guest bloggers to offer ideas and insights into their practice to inform the debates for change.

Thanks to Paul Carlile (@paulcarlile) for sharing ideas in developing this blog.