Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Alternative action

Alternative action

After years of the traditional approach to behaviour management - meting out punishment based on the crime - Filsham Valley School decided to let the pupils have a say in working conflict out for themselves. Deputy head Helen Kenward and Paul Howard show how it works.

What happens when pupils get it wrong in schools? In most cases, an authority figure investigates and determines the outcome and, usually, a pupil is punished. It is rare for the perpetrator and 'victim' to meet and so the underlying harm is neither addressed nor resolved.

We adopted this justice-based approach too, until we heard of 'restorative' approaches in schools as a means to resolving conflict.

We have embarked on a three-year programme to implement it across all key stages.

How it works

The traditional approach is flawed in a number of ways:

  • Resolution is not owned by the perpetrator or 'victim'. We take away the pupils' management of the consequences of incidents.

  • It diminishes responsibility, as pupils have neither the opportunity nor the need to resolve the situation.

  • It tends to be a 'sticking plaster' solution and, because the underlying harm to the relationship is not addressed; the 'wound' remains infected beneath the plaster.

  • It focuses on breaches of rules rather than harm to relationships.

Restorative approaches are based on the idea that when conflict occurs, a person is 'harmed' in some way, either physically or emotionally. It uses trained facilitators to bring perpetrators and victims together to discuss incidents.

In such meetings, all who have been affected are encouraged to discuss the incident, express their feelings and find ways to move forward and repair the harm caused.

Originally we thought that we could use a restorative approach with bullying but we quickly realised that it could be applied to all incidents, including theft, violence and disruption in lessons. It can resolve conflicts between pupils, between staff and pupils and even between staff.

It is by no means a soft option. Nor does it imply that there are no consequences for unacceptable behaviour. Indeed, although we have used it to prevent exclusions, we have also used it when a pupil has returned from exclusion, in order to avoid a repeat of the incident and to give closure, so that all parties feel safe and comfortable.

The restorative approach, however, is not just based on meetings held in isolation of the schools' policies. It must be built up on a strong foundation of values and ethos and a whole staff commitment.

Mediation meetings

When conflicts occur, trained staff first run 'enquiry' meetings with each person individually, to establish whether she or he will agree to meet to resolve the problem. If so, a mediation meeting is then held with all parties.

They have the opportunity to give their account of what happened and share their feelings about the incident and its aftermath. The facilitator neither takes sides nor passes judgement, but is a resource that the participants can use to reach their own resolution.

Because both parties have already agreed to the meeting and have indicated a willingness to resolve the issue, mediation almost always ends in agreements, which parties can sign if they wish.

The agreements are reviewed after one week. The length of the mediation can vary, depending on the number of participants and the complexity of the cases, but usually takes between half an hour and one hour.

For more serious incidents, it is sometimes necessary to mediate with external parties present, including parents, police and social workers. This is called 'conferencing' and is a very powerful means of solving complex issues.

Culture shock

Recognising the cultural differences between a restorative approach and the traditional alternative, we were acutely aware that what was required at Filsham Valley was whole-school development.

We also knew that any attempt to bring about wholesale change overnight would probably meet with resistance and be counter-productive. Consequently, we have tried to bring about the cultural change in steps and, in the process, have identified the different layers at which we can promote practice in a 'restorative pyramid' (see figure right).

For the bottom four layers of the pyramid, commitment of all staff is essential. Just as it would be madness to build the roof first when constructing a house, introducing restorative work makes no sense without refreshing the school's ethos, placing relationships (not behaviour) at the centre of development, rehearsing positive language and learning restorative scripts to use in informal settings.

At Filsham Valley, our first step was to secure these layers through whole staff briefings and training days, with additional training for the senior leadership team to ensure that they would model practice. This was followed with briefings for parents and pupils in year group assemblies.

The whole staff were then in a position to understand the principles and were prepared to try it.

They learned to adapt their everyday language, so that the pupils became used to hearing more restorative language.

For example, when a child was causing low-level disruption, staff began to use a 'script' to manage the problem, rather than imposing an immediate sanction, which may have escalated into further conflict.

Staff training

We were then ready to train staff for the formal restorative meetings for specific incidents. We identified a range of support staff as the most appropriate to carry this out. They have the time to run the meetings and already have positive relationships with our pupils. The approach also fits with our workforce reform model.

Our core group includes:

  • the welfare team, which works with students who are out of class because of distress or disruption

  • the leader of the Learning Support Centre (LSC)

  • the school's police intervention officer

The core group's training has been delivered as three separate days, each covering one of the upper stages of the pyramid, so that the staff can run enquiries, mediation and conference meetings.

To move this even further, in the summer term, we have planned a conference for Year 8 pupils who will become peer mediators for
Key Stage 3. Pupils tell us that in some cases, they would prefer another pupil to facilitate meetings. The programme will then be rolled out throughout all age groups over the next two years.

The results

We began our restorative meetings with Year 8 only, as a pilot group. Our findings so far have been wholly positive and concur with research in other schools.

Staff reported significant improvement in behaviour, we lost less teaching time due to disruptive behaviour, and pupils were more willing to report bullying.

Where we went down the formal restorative practice route, 89 per cent of participants were satisfied with the outcomes and 93 per cent thought it was fair. Participants came to an agreement in 92 per cent of cases and these agreements were maintained in 96 per cent of cases.

In addition:

  • Pupils report that they feel more listened to.

  • Pupils will ask for the meetings to help 'sort out' problems.

  • Parents report greater satisfaction with the outcomes.

  • Re-offending behaviour is rare.

At Filsham Valley, as elsewhere, we have reflected on whether a restorative approach can reduce exclusion. It is our view that there needs to be a clear commitment to finding genuine alternatives to exclusion.

However, we are yet to be convinced that a reduction in exclusion will happen by a type of osmosis, merely through the adoption of restorative practice.

Nonetheless, we remain optimistic that, once a restorative culture is established across the school, this is likely to have a general impact on behaviour and also encourage staff to develop creative and non-punitive responses to the vast majority of difficult behaviours and conflicts.

Helen Kenward is the deputy head of Filsham Valley School in Hastings. Paul Howard is an education consultant. They offer training in restorative approaches and behaviour management. For more information contact pahoward@blueyonder.co.uk

Case Study: Bullying

A student in a wheelchair complained that he was repeatedly being called names by another student and getting comments such as: "Why don't you get up and walk? Oh, you can't can you?"

The accused pupil said that he had been called racist names in response. They were now arguing with each other on a regular basis and friends were joining in.

At the mediation meeting, both boys were able to say how they felt when they were called names. Neither had realised the impact the words had on the other.

They both agreed to apologise and to stop the name calling. They also agreed to tell their respective friends to stop. Neither felt that punishment should be given. Racism was discussed as a further issue.

After three months, both report that there have been no further incidents.

Case Study: Student-staff conflict

The form tutor of a Year 8 student, concerned about the number of sanctions she had received, had volunteered to supervise her detentions as an opportunity to address difficulties. Also one of her subject teachers, he had also become exasperated by her reluctance to engage in lessons.

On this occasion, the student attempted to walk out of the lesson. Standing near the door, the teacher asked her to stay and placed his foot so as to prevent the door opening fully. As the student pulled hard on the door, it hit his foot and bounced back onto her arm.

Following an enquiry with each of them, a mediation meeting was held. The student was invited to tell her story first (we recommend this in staff/student situations) and then the teacher told his.

Although both parties expressed negative feelings about the other's behaviour, both recognised each other's position. The student acknowledged that her tutor had been working hard on her behalf. The teacher was aware that the student had difficulties in and out of school and needed support.

The openness of both and the humility of the teacher were factors in being able to reach a resolution relatively quickly.

Their relationship since mediation has not been without tensions, but they have been able to revisit their shared achievement as a basis for dealing with other conflicts.

Case Study: Extended group conflict

A group of Year 9 girls had regularly ostracised one of their number. On this occasion, the girl's mother wrote to complain of bullying.

However, this was not a straightforward case, as factions started to form on both sides, with a risk of a much wider network of students acquiring an 'interest' in proceedings.

Six girls were identified as having a central role in the situation and, therefore, in any potential resolution. A restorative enquiry was conducted with each student, all of whom agreed to meet to attempt a resolution.

With many allegations and counter-allegations being expressed, inevitably the meeting was tense. At one point, the meeting was suspended because the pressure got to one student and she left the room in tears. She was given time to decide whether she could resume, which she did.

As the meeting evolved, the girls were able to engage safely in open-ended dialogue. After an hour, they asked the two facilitators to leave, so they could talk even more openly and have a chance to sort things out for themselves. After ensuring there were ground rules for dealing with any discomfort, the adults withdrew.

Twenty minutes later, they were invited back in and the meeting moved to a signed agreement over the actions that the girls would take to resolve the difficulty. The agreement has been maintained and relations between the girls has generally improved.

Case Study: Violence

A pupil was excluded for an assault on another pupil on the way home from school. He had waited for the 'victim' and taunted him, before kicking and pushing him.

Following a fixed-term exclusion, his reintegration meeting was held as a restorative enquiry. He acknowledged that his family had been affected and his mother, who was present, told him how ashamed and sorry she had felt. He agreed to meet his 'victim' as he wished to apologise.

With both pupils' agreement, a mediation meeting was held in which the victim described how he had felt humiliated and alone. The perpetrator explained how ashamed he felt and apologised. They both agreed that they needed to be able to get on with other each.

The apology was accepted and both pupils now greet each other warmly when they meet.

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders