Features: March 5th, 2010

By Wendy Woodcock

The behaviour of pupils in schools is not improving. The traditional response to bad behaviour is exclusion, but the number of exclusions remains constant each year and many pupils are excluded more than once. The author describes an alternative restorative approach which has proved effective in resolving conflict and improving behaviour.

The behaviour of pupils in schools has become a highly politicised issue with a great deal of media interest; but we should not forget that responses to pupil behaviour in schools should principally be driven by the school’s primary role to educate and create the generations which make up our future society.

Altering behaviour by exclusion

Behaviour in schools has typically followed a punitive approach of strict adherence to set rules and punishments yet in recent years this approach has been tainted by the use of the term ‘zero-tolerance’. In practical terms the evidence of the zero-tolerance approach in schools is in exclusions, both fixed term and permanent. Whilst the rate of exclusion has remained more or less the same in the last decade there were still 8,130 permanent exclusions and 324,180 fixed-term exclusions in state schools in 2007/8. However, using these statistics as a general view of behaviour in schools it conceals the complexity of an issue that has taken up so many column inches in recent years.

There is no one uniform approach as to how and when to use exclusions results because of the vast differences in approach within each local authority and even between individual schools. It appears that exclusion rates are not principally determined by pupil behaviour, but rather the institutional response to that behaviour. The failure of exclusion to alter behavioural patterns in the long term is reflected in the high proportion of pupils who are excluded more than once; in 2006/7 over 40% of the fixed term exclusions from state schools in England were repeat offenders.

Whilst zero-tolerance has a ready, tough, populist appeal that is easily planted into public consciousness as being seen to be ‘doing something’ about behaviour in schools, it is not necessarily the most effective. As we have seen the prevalence of multiple exclusions combined with an extremely varied approach begs the question, what are children and young people learning about appropriate behaviour and relationships as a result of this approach?

The restorative approach

In contrast a restorative approach embodies the role of the school as educator to resolve conflicts, improve behaviour and develop well-rounded individuals. After working with three schools in East Sussex to see how restorative practice could work in the classroom CfBT Education Trust have published a paper looking at the wider potential of restorative practice in the classroom as an alternative approach to behaviour – ‘Beyond Punishment: Reframing Behaviour in Schools’.

The basic principles of restorative practice are based on an understanding and acceptance that conflict is a part of life and that in a conflict there is an underlying damage to the two parties involved that needs to be addressed to resolve the issue and prevent any further incidences of the same nature. In an educational setting this basically means that instead of simply being punished as a result of bad behaviour a pupil is asked to take responsibility for their actions, understanding what they have done wrong and accepting that their actions can be harmful to others.

This approach seeks to address the flaws of the traditional punitive approach; namely that the ‘offender’ has the responsibility for their actions taken away from them and once punished they have no need to address the underlying harm caused. This is like applying a sticking plaster to the problem. When third parties i.e. teachers deal with conflict the outcomes are superficial punishments whilst underlying issues remain unaddressed. Like a plaster on a dirty wound seals the infection, punitive approaches to conflict seal in the harm within the relationship which will reoccur in subsequent behaviour.

Shifting responsibility to the pupil

By placing the responsibility for conflict resolution back onto the pupil they will be in a much better position to learn about appropriate behaviour and dealing with social relationships rather than always relying on a third party to monitor their actions, dealing with them as necessary. Bringing a holistic restorative approach into schools can not only resolve specific incidences of behaviour but can also create a much nicer learning environment, getting to the heart of issues before they flare up into incidents.

The focus of restorative practice is very much on building strong social relationships. At a time when community cohesion is viewed as a key concern for many local authorities, the development of a systematic, restorative approach could provide a tool to strengthen social relationships within the community from a young age. Particularly in communities dealing with racial and cultural tensions an approach that places responsibility and understanding at the heart of conflict resolution could go some way to breaking down the barriers of ‘us and them’.
There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that restorative practice is an effective way of dealing with behaviour in schools. Our own research in East Sussex backed this up; in the secondary school 95.3% of the conflict mediations resulted in a positive outcome, and of these positive outcomes there were no instances or recurrence in the following year. So why then, with all this evidence, does the Government’s leading authority on behaviour in schools – the Steer Committee Report – make very little reference to restorative practice as a vehicle for behaviour change and learning?

Pressure from public opinion

The young seem to have become an easy target for adult criticism and any politician that takes a traditional hard line approach to behaviour in schools is guaranteed to have populist support. Whilst it is understandable that politicians and policy influencers want to be seen to be working to improve our society, particularly through school development, we can’t end up in the situation where a proven approach to behaviour in schools is ignored in favour of populist approaches.

The principle challenge for politicians is to resist the temptation to make political capital out of the demonization of children and young people. The language of zero-tolerance plays on the misrepresentations of youth portrayed in the media despite an increasing case for evidence that this approach is not working. With exclusion rates staying at the same high level the easy response is to say that schools need to be tougher on the worsening state of pupil behaviour. But it is more difficult to say that the whole approach is not working and needs to be addressed.

Restorative practice in schools is a proven vehicle for demonstrating the skills and potential of young people, including those whose behaviour may be viewed as problematic; politicians therefore have an opportunity to focus on the social capital of young people instead of simply focusing on those aspects of behaviour that are classed as anti-social. Politicians and policy influencers need to have a greater openness to really understanding about child development, behaviour and learning. To be most effective policy developments need to be based on the evidence base from both research and professional practice.

Wendy Woodcock is a Director of CfBT Education Trust www.cfbt.com