Restorative practice in schools - making it happen

A couple of weeks ago the Peer Mediation Network published an open letter to Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education, calling for more action to promote the use of conflict resolution and restorative approaches within schools. The letter argues, rightly, that all young people will have to deal with conflict both at school and in later life, and that giving them the skills to do so positively and constructively should therefore be a higher priority.

It’s hard to disagree with this. Moreover we know that using restorative approaches in schools can be transformative, as schools like Monmouth Comprehensive have discovered. Since introducing restorative practice throughout the school, exclusions are down, staff absence is down, and attainment has improved. Similar positive outcomes have been achieved by other restorative schools, such as Childs Hill Primary School and Carr Manor Community School in Leeds.

The use of restorative practice within schools is still too rare, however. So what do we need to do? I think there are three angles that need to be pursued simultaneously.

The first involves engaging nationally. There is a role for the Department for Education here but it needs to be recognised that their approach is increasingly to devolve responsibility to schools. It is not likely, under the current government at least, that they will take any significant action to actively promote the use of restorative approaches in individual schools, let alone mandate its use. Nonetheless, a recognition of the value of restorative practice from ministers would be welcome and would encourage schools to at least explore a restorative approach.

At the national level, another key player is Ofsted. With the Department for Education taking a more hands-off approach, Ofsted are increasingly setting the parameters of good practice. Many schools gear their development towards what they hope that Ofsted will want to see during their next inspection. So if we want to see restorative practice taken on by more schools, we need to get Ofsted on board. They care more about the outcome than the process, but if Ofsted know what good restorative practice looks like and how it can be linked to positive outcomes they are more likely to recognise and endorse it where they see it.

Second, we need to find ways to engage with schools themselves. As there are around 26,000 schools in England and Wales it isn’t realistic to try and convince each one individually. So we need to find shortcuts. Among the most obvious are to try and target national bodies – for example the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders in order to reach headteachers and the National Governors’ Association for school governors. As academy chains grow, we need to discuss restorative practice with them. And we also need to think about how we inform teachers about restorative practice, potentially through teacher training. In particular we should engage with Teach First – their graduates are likely to be the leaders of the future.

Third, we need to get parents on board. I’ve written about this before, but it’s vitally important that if schools are going to adopt a restorative approach they are able to get parents onside. When I recently visited a school that is currently introducing restorative practice they showed me the materials that they have developed to explain this new approach to parents. This is important, but could be complemented by work to raise the profile of restorative practice generally and by activity specifically targeted at parents.

None of this is easy. But, as the Peer Mediation Network’s letter states, “funding and government support for mediation and restorative approaches in schools has been variable, making provision haphazard. ‎It is time for this to change”. That isn’t going to happen by itself and the Department for Education isn’t going to do the heavy lifting. We therefore need an independently-produced national strategy for embedding restorative practice into schools. We’ve got the ideas but we need somebody to fund its development and delivery. Going forward, securing this funding will be a key priority for the RJC. When we do, we know that it could make a real difference to how children learn to deal with harm and conflict in schools across the country.