What is education really for? Findings from the latest restorative practice research

A new evaluation of restorative practices in US schools has found restorative practice to have several positive effects, including a reduction in suspension rates and an improvement in overall school climates.

Researchers from RAND Corporation evaluated outcomes for students, teachers and schools at 44 schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Half of these schools had adopted a two-year restorative programme, the other half had not.

The study found that the restorative practice programme was successful in reducing the average suspension rate. Over the two-year period, days lost to suspension decreased by 36% in schools where the restorative programme was implemented, compared to 18% where it wasn’t.

Particularly encouraging was how the programme also reduced the disparities between African American students and white students, and between low- and higher-income students. Here in the UK, low income students are more at risk of exclusion, which is itself a key indicator for a trajectory to other risks such as child sexual exploitation, trafficking and crime. The over-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic children in the criminal justice system was rightly flagged as unacceptable in David Lammy’s review in 2017. The role of restorative practice in tackling these disparities at the school stage should not be underestimated.

But not every result was positive. Most significantly, there was no improvement in academic outcomes in the schools with the programme. In fact, academic outcomes worsened for middle grade students (11-14 years old).

The researchers suggest some reasons for this: that 11-14 year olds may be less likely to be positively affected by restorative practices, or that two years is too short a timeframe to yield benefits. More research is needed to test these hypotheses.

Practitioners know that restorative practice alone cannot change academic achievement, especially if the quality of teaching and learning does not improve along with its introduction. Restorative practice is not a silver bullet.

But this finding prompts a more challenging thought.

Research which finds that restorative practice does not improve academic outcomes is, on the face of it, bad news in a climate where a school’s academic results has a significant impact on its reputation. Programmes which do not improve academic outcomes are unlikely to win the support of headteachers, politicians or the public.

But over-prioritisation of academic achievement, to the detriment of other vital skills such as empathy, respect and social responsibility, has its own negative consequences.

Fixed-term exclusions are on the rise and there is increasing concern about off-rolling, the practice of removing children from school before GCSEs in order to raise a school’s average performance. Concerns about overuse of exclusions prompted a government review last year, which the RJC was pleased to engage with. While the review is yet to publish its conclusions, what’s clear is that pressure on schools to achieve results is leading to some dubious use of exclusions.

Instead of looking to explain away the finding that restorative practice does not improve academic outcomes, perhaps we should confront the fact that it may be true: restorative approaches, on its own, might not have a positive effect on academic outcomes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t play in important positive role in education. Besides further research, perhaps a readjustment of priorities is required.

Rather than shying away from difficult conversations about academic outcomes, let’s use this research to discuss what education is really for. Restorative practice can play an important role in supporting children to become responsible, mature and engaged in a positive learning culture. Working towards a restorative society means making the argument that these skills are as essential as grades for children to achieve their full potential and lead fulfilling and happy lives.

Fionnuala Ratcliffe, policy and communications officer