Restorative Justice in schools – what? and why?

1) What is Restorative Justice?


2) Why it should not be used in schools

Proof of guilt

When someone is found guilty of committing an offence the justice system attempts to ensure that perpetrator suffers a suitable punishment for having committed the offence and makes restitution or compensation to the victim as evidence of their remorse. In the face of rising youth crime in the UK and the failure of punishment to prevent reoffending, restorative justice has been trialed as an alternative to summary justice.

The basic tenet of Restorative Justice is that people are categorised as offenders and victims and a guilty offender has caused harm to an innocent victim. Together with suffering punishment the offender must make amends, demonstrate remorse and provide compensation for harm done in order for justice to be done and Restorative Justice has been designed to fulfill this role.

Restoration for a harmful act is usually done at arms length, the victim may never come into direct contact with the offender who has harmed them.

Restorative Justice puts the offender face to face with their victim in a scripted dialogue with preset goals.

A new approach to crime and restitution

This approach was first tried out in Canada and came to the UK in the late 1980s. Four pilot victim-offender mediation projects were funded by the Home office and evaluated. The four projects spanned from the diversion of cases before court to post-conviction intervention. It was found that the majority of victims said they would like to meet the perpetrator and thought the meeting worthwhile. It was also found that some programmes applied pressure to victims to take part although their participation was supposed to be voluntary. Funding was withdrawn at the end of the pilot project although some local services like the probation service continued the practice in their areas.

Quite separately an approach to resolving complex problems was developed by New Zealand Maoris in the late 1980s. They were dissatisfied with the official child protection and youth justice system and adapted their existing village governance approach to these situations. Family members were empowered to make decisions about their own children, under the guidance of a community elder and subject to the review of the court.

I first came across this approach in my own work in the early 2000s when I was as a behaviour specialist teacher in a local authority school support team. I had a role in providing solution-focused supervision for colleagues in the Family Group Conferencing team. They used an adapted form of this Maori initiative as a means of preventing family breakdown and the movement of children into care. In 1990 the Family Rights Group, a UK national voluntary organisation promoted FGC for child kwelfare issues. A national pilot began in 1992 and expanded through the 90s with successful outcomes being reported nationally. In 2013 following an evaluation which demonstrated successful outcomes the team was disbanded in order to save money in the LA.

Mission creep

Family Group Conferencing was claimed by the Restorative Justice proponents as a form of restorative justice but it is difficult to see how this is justified as the work of the family conference was not initiated by the proven doing of harm by an offender to a victim. In fact in my experience the conference specifically avoided attributing deficits such as the intentional doing of harm to family and group members, looking instead for strengths and agreed solutions. Power was intentionally shared rather then being in the hands of professionals who defined others’ deficits and shortcomings – and strengths. However it is claimed that it is ‘In the same spirit as victim-offender mediation’.

The restorative justice movement, now incorporating a widening diversity of activities within it, was strengthened with the large scale involvement of police forces in the introduction of the Restorative Conference developed in Australia as another version of the Maori initiative. In this configuration the conference facilitator asks conference members a scripted set of questions intended to objectify the process. Out of this experience arose the Reintegrative Shaming Experiment (RISE) which has found international support of police forces.

In the UK it was taken up a small number of police officers who developed their own conferencing practice largely ignoring the basic tenets of restorative justice as originally conceived.

Family group conferencing in its turn was adapted for use in schools and the criminal justice system and has proved successful in dealing with young offenders guilty of serious offences.

If you want to know read this dispassionate history.

2) Why it should not be used in schools.

The restorative approach comes under criticism from several directions. Where the restorative conference approach is used to deal with bullying in schools, those who mistakenly believe that punishment is appropriate as a teaching approach and insist that bullies should always be punished characterise the restorative approach as ‘too soft’ because the bully gets away with their offence and the victim does not have the satisfaction of seeing the bully suffer punishment. These people ignore the likelihood that punishing children who bully others makes it more likely they will continue to bully, and may well pick on children who speak out against them. They also ignore the fact that punishment does not promote learning.

A second criticism is that for restorative justice to be initiated there has to be proven harm; the perpetrator has to be proven guilty or their guilt established to agreed levels of proof . This is always very difficult to achieve in schools because it relies on competing stories recalled and told by children to adults in a situation where there is an imbalance of power. School rules are not the same as statute law. Children accused of harming other children often refer to harm having been done to them and the responsibility chains outwards and away from the clear and simple initial bullying action. To put it more simply there is a real danger of victim blaming. This is one reason that providing pastoral support in schools is a tricky act to carry though with a balance of fairness and firmness.

My major criticism is that as educators we have to be able to specify the educational purpose of what we do in school with all students. In general we characterise children coming to us in school as hopeful, diligent people doing their best to be successful at whatever their stage of life and development. It is inevitable that they make mistakes as they try out all kinds of new things and we need the creativity and imagination to lead them past their mistakes to find success, no less in their behaviour as members of the community than in their spelling and maths and all the other areas of learning. We hope they will see mistakes as opportunities rather than barriers and as a focus for work rather than a magnet for punishment. We should aim for students to be motivated by the intrigue of a challenge not by fear of retribution. An overall aim of education is to enable children to grow in self-confidence and become independent thinkers and self-motivated. Coercive practices which depend on external motivation, where something has to be done to a child rather than with them militates against this kind of growth, it shifts responsibility away from a child whom we hope will become self-correcting.

So what do we intend children to learn through experiencing restorative justice? I will leave that question for you to answer, knowing what you know now.

We also know, with evidence coming from research on the placebo effect, that if one person’s confidence or lack of trust transfers to another even if it’s not spoken about. There is no educational justification for calling children intentional harm-doers and putting them into a process that depends on this characterisation. I have seen the wall posters in a school that uses RJ and they clearly state that it is all about harm, the doing of harm and restitution, in language primary aged children might understand. I have challenged the RJ trainer on this. She was adamant that RJ is not about calloing children harmful and then pursuing this theme, that RJ had moved beyond that whith Circle Time and classroom activities. Until I pointed out the wall posters, when she conceded that the process is built on characterising children in this way, knowing a child is harmful before the full process begins, resting the assignment of guilt on the evidence of children and bystanders.

The Center for Restorative Process in the USA says ‘Restorative Practices are a framework for building community and for responding to challenging behavior through authentic dialogue, coming to understanding, and making things right.’ This sounds worthy but the circle time proposed as the medium for restorative justice in school is based on the same closed understanding of deficit and the harmful child as before. It is not an authentic conversation because it’s not an open inquiry – it starts from a position of knowing that the offender is offensive. It claims to be a major innovation because it deflects punishment, but it is still retributive.


There’s a common theme to intervention programmes that have been introduced to schools from other contexts – they are rarely true replications of previous trials, being substantially modified for use with a different target group in a different context, in this case drawing a parallel between guilty criminals and school children making mistakes in their behaviour. The high level of training and support required to implement and evaluate intiatives is rarely sustained and what starts off as an integrated programme often ends as ‘tips and tricks’. This allows principles to be left behind and pragmatics to take over. In the case of restorative justice it can become no more than an adjunct to punishment rather than what is claimed, as a new paradigm. And there’s always the common argument that coercion is all we’ve got to manage behaviour so if we don’t do that what do we do?

Fair point. And the answer? Be solution-focused, not problem-focused. That really is a paradigm shift and it leaves extrinsic motivation in the dust and goes straight for self-motivated students as the intended educational outcome.


Is Restorative Justice an appropriate teaching approach for use in schools?

How do you justify your answer to this?

What would you like to see in your school to support children’s learning about behaviour?






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