In the same week that Ofsted reveal 38 days of teaching are lost every year to low-level disruption, I went along to a talk on Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools as part of Nottingham’s Week For Peace.
Last summer when I was given the go-ahead to lead the research agenda at our school, I did a bit of searching to see if I could make some preliminary links with our local universities and came across a name that was familiar. As it turns out, our school was part of a research project some years ago with Dr Edward Sellman (I do remember it happening but I was at a point in my career when I spent my days identifying a spectacular amount of nits and reading all the best voices in ‘The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark’). I reasoned that this might be a good place to start (at the university, not nits or Plop the barn owl) and when I made contact I was offered a free course for two members of staff and a link back with the University’s Student Volunteer Programme.
Our free course was, as I said, part of the Week For Peace. It was due to be a full day event but changed to an evening so schools could avoid the cover issue. I mention this because I think had it been a full day, there would have been more opportunities to discuss the different elements presented and that would have been useful. My comments on the session are more ongoing thoughts than a defined position and I’m skirting over Edward Sellman’s comments rather than deeply analysing them.
The session covered the following areas:
- The characteristics of restorative and punitive approaches to conflict in schools.
- What is meant by ‘restorative approaches’ and what they have to offer.
- What restorative approaches to conflict in schools look like.
There were a series of explanations and examples, a regulation IT hiccup and some group discussion that introduced each of the areas. I have a grounding in behaviourist approaches and appreciated the challenge to my professional practice. There were moments when I thought it sounded ‘brilliant in theory but how was it supposed to work in the ‘real world’. However, so as not to be a hypocrite, I’m not in a position to argue without any evidence to back myself up… I have looked into behaviour systems in the past, but this has been from the angle of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, focusing on token economies without exploring the alternatives. After some admittedly provocative titles such as “Why is there so much punishment in schools?”, my colleague and I were a bit defensive of the system we use, yet both of us have come away thinking about how we can use these ideas in our setting.
Edward Sellman’s research shows that for a restorative approach in schools to be most successful, it needs to be across the school with every member of staff and pupil committed to making it work in an all or nothing approach. I understand how pupils may be confused if an incident is dealt with in a restorative manner in the playground, and a punitive way in the classroom. He didn’t argue that there should be absolutely no punishments or points systems. They have their place, but his research advocates a middle step of negotiation and mediation.
He argued that in the ‘real world’ good behaviour doesn’t always merit reward and bad behaviour doesn’t always get punished, but the real world operates under a behaviourist system, and whilst it will never be perfect, if a restorative approach in schools requires a level of universality to have an impact, might it not also be the case in society? If we teach pupils that their disagreements and incidents will be mediated, once they are out of our care, will they find things equally as confusing?
I have worked alongside pupils with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties for over 11 years now. A behaviourist approach is central to our whole school day. We start the day with a whole-staff briefing, and we de-brief at the end of each day. We have a reward system that feeds into every part of school life and for the most part I think we are successful. It is rare for us to have major incidents, there are good relationships between pupils and staff, and our pupils are achieving both personally and academically. I have to say, I don’t think behaviourism is purely about punishments and rewards; there has to be an element of incentives and motivation as well. A sanction doesn’t need to happen for it to have an effect, pupils can merely be reminded of what might happen if they continue or what they need to do in order to get to the ‘reward’. We have introduced changes to our reward systems over the past couple of years and keep in mind the need for pupils, certainly KS4, to develop intrinsic motivation whilst recognising that many of our pupils struggle to see as far as their next lesson, let alone the impact of exams.
Our school is clearly a different entity to many schools – not that for a second I think the same behaviours don’t occur elsewhere regularly. After the talk I stayed behind for a discussion; Edward is familiar with our school and it was clear that he understands that it’s not often that people want to change a ‘working’ system and introduce the polar opposite, so there is little chance of our school adopting a universally restorative approach. There are areas that I think we can improve and I have discussed these with a few colleagues. Rather than change the systems in place, we need to remind ourselves of the times we do what we do so well.
- We need to use detentions or break bans to get to the bottom of why a potentially vulnerable child is behaving a certain way.
- We need to recognise if a pupil is receiving sanctions for the same thing too often and find out why.
- We need to explore de-escalation techniques and learn from each other as a staff team.
- We need to analyse the reasons for physical interventions – and involve the pupil in this.
We already do all these things – and most of them we wouldn’t even think of as a ‘thing’. As the school expands and staff time gets tight, we need to remember to keep on doing them.
Edward Sellman talked about the importance of pupil self-worth and the voluntary nature of a restorative approach. Without the first, you can’t have the second. Many of our pupils are very low on self-esteem and before we think about using any of the suggestions made, this is something of crucial importance. They will get their self-worth from many places. A lot of them will get it from their academic achievements – boys who entered the school unable to read and leave with a raft of qualifications. Some will accept the emotional support we offer – others are so lost that it will take more work.
Behaviour management advice is usually to have clear levels of intervention, consistency across school and for every member of staff to be involved in upholding the school’s policy. I think this is possible with both a behaviourist and restorative approach. As long as everyone understands the ethos of the school and works together in the best interests of the pupils, the system has a good chance of working. As far as our school is concerned, I think we need to take a step back sometimes and recognise that we already have a lot of features of a restorative approach in place and remember that they are valuable tools for us to use.