It’s time to make a longer table, not a higher wall

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something; and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.

(Daniel Berrigan, 1921-2016)

We talk often with gratitude about the fact that children and young people generally do not get COVID-19 and if they do get it they generally recover well. However, the effect on children and young people we now know is not directly through transmission of infection but through transmission of adult anxieties, the surrounding atmosphere, the lack of necessary contact with their peers.

It is not too early to consider the deep and deepening effects on a young person told to avoid other people, to not hug, the impact of fears aroused by constant hand washing and attention to hygiene. And then to worry about the impact of disruptions to the structure given by school, the interactions with peers, the impact of isolation from peers, the confinement at home, which is not always the safe place it should be.

In these turbulent last few months, I have felt we are being offered a time for recalibration. At the time of writing, countries across the world are at different stages of their Covid-19 journey, but all young people have been shaken and disturbed, their priorities thrown into disarray, their sense of ‘normal’ shattered. A different future is now inevitable.

We have realised we can’t build walls to keep out the virus. I think this moment is one in which the medium of restorative thinking, approaches, practices, in education offers an opportunity to see in a different way; to see that we can’t build walls to keep out problems, inequalities or injustices any more than we can build walls to stop a virus spreading.

For me, one of the starkest examples of this in the UK is that we are still excluding large numbers of young people from school for what we call ‘indiscipline’ or ‘disobedience’.  Even when we know that what these young people often have in common, is not some kind of innate wilfulness, but poverty, or learning difficulties, or trauma, or their gender; and sometimes all of the above.

For those of us who aim to work restoratively, it is a time to think even more deeply about what it means to be committed to this work, to how we can use restorative principles to ‘make the table longer’, in order to be more genuinely inclusive.

It is also a time of, and for, action, led by this deeper thinking; a critical openness to the social, economic, cultural and ethical challenges that Covid-19 has surfaced; the inequalities it has exposed and exacerbated. This is a threshold moment, a time to break out of well-trodden ways to be active in our risk taking and justice seeking. And to do it with compassion.

‘Sit Down Next to Me’

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me

(Lyrics by James, 1990)

About the Author

Prof Gillean McCluskey, Chair in School Exclusion and Restorative Practice, University of Edinburgh. Gillean’s teaching and research focuses on issues of marginalization and inequality in education with a particular focus on school exclusion and restorative approaches. Previously she worked as a teacher in mainstream schools and alternative settings, in housing and in public libraries.

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SUE ATTRILL OCTOBER 14, 2021, 5:13 PM 

Thankyou Gillean for this important reminder. I completely agree that this is a threshold moment. In particular regarding marginalised young people and I’m feeling hopeful that schools are rethinking their approaches. I worked today in a school in the Far North of Australia where poverty and disadvantage are pervasive. I was heartened to see compassion and interest – concern and action – willingness to change practices. This is what we need to continue to support one person/school at a time. And hopefully snowball into an avalanche!!