Looking back to move forward – from roots to revolution

Restorative practice is not, first and foremost, about behaviour management – or even relationship management. But it is about a culture and an ethos built on fairness, respect, inclusion and accountability.

 I feel a bit like an elder after 25 years in the field, and whilst I do not think of myself as an expert as I still have so much to learn, nonetheless I do think I could share some of what I have learnt.

As a trainee secondary school teacher I had been inspired by writers who were critiquing traditional school practice. I began using what we now think of as pro-active circles and group problem-solving circles with class groups in the mid 1980’s. However, although what I was doing was impacting a lot on the young people it was not really changing teachers’ practice.

It all came together in my head when I heard Terry O’Connell, from New South Wales, speak to the Thames Valley Police in the late 1990’s.

I realised that the philosophy of Restorative Justice was, at that point, the missing piece in my school reform ambitions. It provided a way to think differently about relationships and highlighted how the traditional punishment system was neither addressing the underlying reasons for people’s actions nor repairing the fractured relationships caused by harmful actions and words.

Then, back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I started offering training in what I then called Restorative Approaches – including pro-active circles and a range of restorative skills and processes for repairing relationships and repairing harm.

Often a random selection of staff would attend, many having no power whatsoever to change the policies and procedures of the school in which they worked. And they were often sent because the leadership team wanted them to have new tools for behaviour management.

Restorative practice (the term I tend to use now), is not, first and foremost, about behaviour management – or even relationship management. But it is about a culture and an ethos built on fairness, respect, inclusion and accountability.  

These values must, first and foremost, be modelled by the senior leadership team.  This is with whom I would start work now when invited to work with a school.

I want a school to know that if they want to embark on a journey to implement a restorative ethos into their schools it is going to take many years. One or two introductory training courses may be a start, but training is just a first tiny baby step on a longer journey.

The journey’s purpose is about everyone changing the way they think about relationships, about how they communicate, address conflict, repair harm and indeed also how they teach and learn; it is about changing policies, procedures and the curriculum so they are genuinely inclusive.

This means looking at hard issues around racism, sexism, homophobia, disability awareness and trauma, for example.  If a school is up for this that is wonderful. If not then I would advise them that there is work to be done before embarking on their restorative journey.

Restorative justice, when I first heard about it, seemed to be a philosophy that promoted fairness to all, listening to all, giving all a voice and all a say in putting things right. And as well as repair I discerned pro-active principles that would create a culture based on mutual respect, trust, collaboration and shared accountability. Radical – yes? Achievable? I thought so. And some of the schools I have worked with over the past 25 years have come a long way along this radical road. But many have not.

So what has happened to the radical edge of Restorative Justice now? Do we still want to see the transformational values, principles and practices of restorative justice in every aspect of school life? If so, we need to go back to the radical roots of the practice*.

We need to challenge those who want to cherry-pick restorative practice such that a ‘restorative’ becomes the new detention, used to show youngsters the error of their ways.

We must stop talking about restorative practice as a new behaviour management tool. It is so much more than this. It is a radical way to transform the quality of relationships, of life and of work in educational and indeed others institutions.  It is a mechanism for achieving social justice, challenging inequalities, prejudices, and deeply-held beliefs about the power and control inherent in privilege. Let’s be bold and brave. Let’s be radical.

*Radical in fact comes from the Latin ‘radix – meaning root but has also come to mean extremist, unlike anything that has come before – so the idea of restorative justice having radical roots is very pleasing! Let’s hope it has radical fruits too!

About the Author

Belinda Hopkins pioneered the use of restorative approaches in schools in the UK in the late1990’s and wrote some of the first books on the topic. Her doctorate was also a first in this field. Since 2010 she has been developing partnerships and links across Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and in post-Soviet countries. She is deputy chair on the Board of the charity Why Me?; an active member of UK’s Restorative Justice Council and the European Forum for Restorative Justice, and also chairs this organisation’s new Education Working Group.

My website: www.transformingconflict.org


PETA BLOOD  19 Jun 2021 14:56

I certainly think you can consider yourself as one of the pioneers of practice in schools Belinda, with your writing influencing many educators around the world and providing a voice for what many of us were doing in schools at the time. You are spot on in the sense of how RP is not a new behaviour management tool, as to think of RP as only this is to miss the point of what it is all about. In repairing relationships, we must consider what we are restoring to. If relationships are not built on trust and respect in the first place, then we are potentially setting others up to fail. Here’s to restorative radicalism!