The healing power of Restorative Justice


In Louise Tickle’s powerful article in The Guardian this week here, she looks closely at the approach to using Restorative Justice in schools. The article reflects on the number of children who have been permanently excluded across Gloucestershire, and across the UK, but then considers the impact of the technique of Restorative Justice on shifting the behaviour culture in our schools. It is a technique worth exploring.

When we want immediate punitive action in response to an incident in school, then a simple process of hard and fast detentions can work, where x incident = y punishment. Here justice focuses on establishing guilt and consequent retribution for a single incident. Often students will be reluctant to admit guilt/accept responsibility for their action. However to rebuild trust in a school where relationships are not right, or more crucially to build a school with powerful pupil-teacher relationships which drive school improvement, then something deeper and more transformational is needed.

Restorative justice (RJ) focuses on building responsibility not just for one incident but by improving future working relationships and creating a more forward-looking behaviour system. Developing long term change.

tree ringsThe British judicial system was originally premised on retribution rather than restoration. Our prisons are full to bursting. Reoffending rates are high. Data from European countries with different approaches towards incarceration suggests that reoffending rates are significantly lower. RJ has now been used for some time across Europe and also successfully in the British judicial system to bring victims and criminals together, with principles and techniques harnessed from their transformational use in countries such as Northern Ireland and South Africa.


Possibly the most powerful use of RJ internationally was as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Bishop Desmond Tutu. It was counter-intuitive, courageous and it was not popular for many victims of violence of the apartheid system. However this brave approach is believed to have been largely responsible across South Africa for the long term forgiveness of past agonies.  Like it or not in our schools (and PRUs) across the country we are currently educating our future generation of prison inmates along with our next generation of national leaders, so it makes a lot of sense to establish an approach to right and wrong which will establish the most effective long term behaviour change. We need to look at what the evidence shows us.

tutu father

RJ is not by any means a new strategy. Neither is its use in schools a soft option. It takes time to train staff and students, to embed the new practice and culture and to build more effective relationships. One of the challenges for leaders is to understand how and when  to play the long game in relationship-building. Within our school, the new restore meetings that we introduced at the end of the day replaced a historically broken system of failed detentions, where departments operated in isolation and where students often failed to turn up.

Here’s how our RJ meetings work:  Students who are removed from the lesson following our behaviour system have to meet with the member of staff (usually along with the Head of House or senior leader) for a thoughtful and reflective three-way meeting. The aim is that when things go wrong, we have a structured, well understood and calm process to help them put things right. This means in the short term that students can get quickly back into learning the following day, and in the long term they learn about how to talk through and restore problems in life as they crop up. Believing that I can respond to and learn from feedback is part of the journey to being a mature adult. We are intent on developing this capacity in each of our learners: students and staff. Feedback is good.

We want the majority of situations to be dealt with ultimately by the class teacher. This brings the incident full circle and means that we as class teachers stay in control of resolving the incident, but with the strong support of a whole school system and the presence of senior staff. One purpose is that this results in less escalation of incidents. Incidents are dealt with at source and concluded on the same day.

RJ fits in with our first 2 core values:

VALUE 1: BELONG – Every member of our school community – student and staff – matters. Everything comes out of relationship so getting our relationships right is important. 

VALUE 2: BELIEVE – We learn to believe in ourselves and in one another, in who we are, in what we do; in our work, rest and leisure; in serving the world. We see feedback as our friend, learning to give & receive positive and constructive feedback so we grow.

At the outset I remember standing in the centre of our internal space supervising RJ workshops, ensuring that students attended and also that all staff modelled the new-style conversation well. Not every interaction was a roaring success, because a legacy of poor behaviour and a lack of trust. However the shift was almost immediate and staff would describe the almost visceral feeling of change in the air. Relationship-building. Great schools have teachers and support staff who work hard to help students be successful, students working very closely with teachers and a palpable sense of mutual respect. Where when things go wrong teachers know how to help students put it right, and students have the tools to do this too. As the over-quoted Ginott line goes: “ I have the power to humiliate or humour, hurt or heal.” Every day teachers and support staff make daily decisions about how we get this right.

Joe Brummer.0012(image: Joe Brummer)

In “10 steps to turn the ship”  I try to explore the tension for a leader between the need for immediate impact and the more important, fundamental change and deeper task of transforming the culture throughout the school. Architect v Superhead. We know school improvement is a work of long term art and heart. Forging brilliant relationships are the meat and drink of good leaders – that blend of excellent professional engagement, warm parental contact and a strong rapport with students which blends great expectations with a palpable privilege of working together. Although personally I know I often fail to live up to this aspiration, I hope that visitors will the ‘feel’ of this dynamic in our school.

I like what the brilliant spiritual guru Richard Rohr writes about the difference between retributive systems and restorative systems:

“In Step 5 of the Twelve Steps (from Alcoholics Anonymous), we admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the nature of our wrongs. Almost all religion and cultures that I know of have believed in one way or another that sin and evil are to be punished, and retribution is to be demanded. Such retributive justice is a dualistic system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys. This system is the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, and even most of the church (which should know better) can do. The revelation from Jesus’ healings and the Twelve Steps, however, shows that sin and failure are in fact the opportunity for the transformation and enlightenment of the offender. The aim is to return the person to a useful position in the community. Such restorative justice is a mystery that makes sense to the soul. As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.”


So here are a few suggestions for how we can apply some of these principles in our schools:

  • Think long term – in each interaction, every day.  One of my mantras at school is “every conversation with a child is an investment in the next one”. It is not about getting what you want in and through each situation, but thinking intentionally about the direction of that relationship into the future. Avoid anything which smacks of short term discipline answers.
  • RJ can be part of a clear and strong discipline system, which supports teachers and the ‘silent majority’ of students. It’s not soft and woolly.
  • Draw in professionals with more experience in the RJ area to help you, staff and students.
  • Incorporate RJ explicitly it into your behaviour policy and as a significant aspect of your ‘alternative curriculum’, whatever that looks like. Best practice is probably a broad multi-agency approach. We have used visits from the ex-offenders programme ‘Great Expectations’ as part of our alternative programme.
  • Help staff and students articulate clearly with directional advice such as the Guidance appendices below. Language and consistency of language is really important.
  • Never assume that you or the most senior staff are the most experienced or the most skilful in this area.
  • Be present at key times, especially when introducing the shift. Modelling exactly what you want is crucial. Support and challenge staff when they need it or when they get the principles or methods wrong.


Appendix 1: Restorative Meetings – Guidance for Staff: 

When students in your class have been isolated/buddied out to another class, they will now need to attend a restorative meeting with you at the end of the day to resolve this situation. Before that meeting they have been given a RESTORE CARD to help them reflect on their behaviour and what’s happened.

  • Aim to keep the restorative meeting short and focused.
  • If there was any anger/confrontation in the situation, please try to defuse this and help the student to calmly see how they resolve situations. Often students who find it hard to manage their emotions can learn a great deal from how to properly resolve an incident. (In their home lives they may have not have fully learnt the skills of needing to do this). We as professionals must model this well.
  • State the purpose of the conversation – that you are here to reflect on what’s happened – keep the meeting positive in order to achieve the change in behaviours that you want as an outcome – state the facts at this stage.
  • Allow the student time to explain – Get them to talk! What were they thinking/feeling at the time? Is there anything else going on?
  • Talk about the knock on effect of their behaviour in terms of who has been affected and in what ways – you might need to point it out to some students as their understanding/empathy could be limited.
  • Explain that in order to move forwards there may be consequences for their actions. Thank them for accepting responsibility for their actions (assuming they have!). Because of this, you can both agree a way forward.
  • Use the word CHOICES – help them to see/make the right choices.
  • If appropriate you can talk about resilience with them and ‘bouncing back’ from negative situations – we all experience these moments but it’s how we deal with them and learn from them that makes the difference.
  • Focus on the future – set the target for them for next time you meet and keep it realistic and achievable. Monitor them in future lessons and praise when you notice their improved behaviour. Praising them privately (non-verbal signal during the lesson or after the lesson) is so powerful.
  • In my experience, what has often started as a negative, can actually build a relationship and trust.

Appendix 2: Restorative Meetings – Guidance for students

  • As you have been sent out to isolation/a buddy teacher you need to attend a restorative meeting with your teacher at the end of the today.
  • This meeting is to talk through what happened and to put things right ready for your next lesson.
  • Taking responsibilty for this will help you get yourself out of this situation.
  • Before that meeting you need to reflect on your behaviour and what’s just happened.

Think about the following questions to prepare you for talking to your teacher:

  1. What’s happened?
  2. What were you thinking/feeling at the time?
  3. Who has been affected by your actions?
  4. What can you say at the meeting with your teacher to put things right?
  5. How can you do things differently in the future?



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