Saturday, May 21, 2016

Restorative Justice is an insult to teachers

A colleague slinks into the office. She sits quietly for a moment, deep in thought. She then begins to cry. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. ‘Oh…bloody Restorative Conversations. I’ve just been torn to shreds by Sabrina and Tess.’ She’s sobbing now, uncontrollably. Being relatively new, though – I’ve only been at the school for a few months -, I feel a little too unfamiliar to offer a comforting hug, so put the kettle on instead.
‘Who’s Sabrina?’ I ask, half-expecting to discover that she’s yet another member of our oversized Senior Leadership Team. ‘She’s an extremely manipulative Year 9 student,’ she replies. Tess, believe it or not, is our headteacher. I’m speechless. ‘Tess was siding with Sabrina and blaming me for her behaviour,’ my colleague continues. ‘Apparently, her calling me a ‘F****** b****’ was my fault. I only asked her to remove her jacket, for Heaven’s sake. Okay, I raised my voice after my first two requests were ignored, but how does that make her abusive behaviour my fault?’ I feel like weeping with her.
It doesn’t matter how long I’ve worked in schools, I still can’t come to terms with the madness that stubbornly refuses to relent. Indeed, after 12 long years in the profession, and having experienced a number of different environments, I cannot help but conclude that to be a senior leader you must first be a misanthropic lunatic who naively believes in the infallibility of children and, I suspect, the tooth fairy, too. Why else would you institute something as ridiculous and counterproductive as Restorative Justice?
In its educational incarnation, it’s meant to resolve disputes between pupils and teachers. The antagonists are brought together by an intermediary (usually a member of the SLT), as if they’re both equally to blame for the impasse, and encouraged to air their differences before both offering their apologies, extending their little fingers and singing ‘make up ginger nuts, never do it again’. Okay, I concede that the singing was a slight embellishment, but you get my point: teachers are being treated like children; or to look at it from another perspective: children are being treated like adults. Either way, it’s incredibly damaging.  
The former insults the intelligence of the professional and leads to an infantilized and demoralized workforce (I wonder why there’s a retention crisis…); the latter gives the child a responsibility that he or she is likely to abuse. And if you think such practices are confined to secondary schools, you can think again: my wife, a Year 2 primary school teacher, had training in Restorative Justice just last week. Imagine being forced to listen to an eight-year-old say he misbehaves because your lessons are boring. How humiliating.
Like its discredited 1960s antecedents that saw, in some schools, pupils addressing their teachers by their first names, and the relatively recent approach to recruitment whereby job applicants are interviewed by a panel of kids, Restorative Justice directly challenges and undermines the authority of teachers and with it, the hitherto settled and accepted way of raising, teaching and socialising our children. With every meeting and every SLT-sanctioned opportunity to spit vitriol at a member of staff he or she doesn’t like, the child becomes less deferential and more contemptuous of the teachers trying to help them – with entirely predictable consequences for behaviour and learning.
Let’s pause for one moment and consider the logic of this now pervasive approach to behaviour management. If headteachers believe that adults should not hold dominion over children, then, taken to its logical conclusion, surely parents should be prohibited from sanctioning and making decisions on behalf of their kids, too.
When put in these terms, it really does underscore the policy’s vacuity and with it, the contradiction at the heart of our schools. Advocates of ‘Restorative Justice’ want teachers to be in loco perentis and, as such, responsible for the children in their care, both pastorally and academically – presumably because they rightly recognise that children, in the main, are too vulnerable and immature to make sensible decisions; but they are unwilling to give teachers the authority to adequately fulfil these duties. Instead, through such meetings, they encourage children to actively challenge their teachers’ authority. They really have got themselves into a terrible pickle.
And before you accuse me of being some cruel Gradgrindian monster who believes that children should be seen and not heard, I add this disclaimer: I am not against listening to a child’s concerns; neither am I against sitting down and explaining what he or she did to merit a sanction.
I am against a systematized approach that, through ‘enlightened’ mediation conducted by some smug, condescending, self-congratulatory and self-righteous senior leader – which in itself assumes that the teacher can’t be trusted to be fair -, treats pupils and teachers as equals. When it comes to schooling, we are not equals – that’s why my pupils address me as Sir and, in theory at least, follow my instructions. As a professional, my word should not be gainsaid, but supported. If you happen to doubt my intentions, and insist on questioning my every decision through a disgruntled adolescent lacking the maturity to know what’s good for them, don’t employ me. It really is that simple.
Meanwhile, my colleague sips her tea, wipes a tear from her cheek and makes a promise. ‘I’m leaving at the end of the year,’ she says. ‘I can’t stay here.’ Another one bites the dust.

First published on on 18th May 2016. Also published on on 19th May 2016


  1. I too have had to sit through a day of "restorative justice" training. Thankfully I have never had to participate in a session, but my first comment would be that the relationship hasn't broken down, there's nothing to repair, simply the student needs to behave properly, and I refuse to play the game (hopefully!)

  2. What you describe is awful and not unfamiliar to me. I've ranted at length about my experiences of "restorative justice". However what you are describing is appalling practice being falsely labelled "restorative justice". Good restorative practice works in the criminal justice system and it can work in schools. I only gave it a chance after working with some excellent Youth Justice workers who swore by it.

    The problems with using it in schools are simple:

    1) for it to work all participants have to buy into the process.
    2) It is not supposed to be an alternative to a sanction/punishment
    3) The person running the restorative session has to be highly trained, skilled and motivated to resolve the situation to the satisfaction of the victim.
    4) It is hard work making it work and requires the kind of effort and time that many leaders are not willing to put in.
    5)It has been done badly so often that the word "restorative" is almost irredeemably tarnished making it very difficult to get teachers to buy in to the process.

    I currently work in a good school with good behaviour management systems and I still inwardly wince or cringe when I hear the word "restorative" but it shouldn't be that way.

    It is my opinion that restorative practice more than most ideas around behaviour management should be done very well, following the guidelines from the criminal justice system, or not at all. Done badly it is horrendous and most schools in my experience do it REALLY badly