“Mind the gap!”: restorative practice and its unfulfilled potential

Chris Straker was a headteacher in Hull, UK, where he developed a whole school approach to restorative practice in his school.  He also co-founded the Hull Centre for Restorative Practice, in 2007. He works as a consultant and trainer in restorative practice across England and Wales in schools, social care settings and with police and fire services. He is a Director of Restorative Thinking Ltd. and on the Technical Advisory Board of Terre des Hommes – supporting the development of restorative work in Romania, Estonia, Greece and The Netherlands. He has been a speaker at conferences in the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and across Europe.  He has just started a PHD exploring the concept of the restorative city.

Restorative practice (RP) is universally praised, and yet it still feels marginalised. I don’t know about you, but I am continually conflicted working in the restorative world. There is so much positive work going on but its overall impact, frustratingly, falls short of the impact many of us would like to see.

That is not to deny the amazing work being done in schools, social work, residential settings, criminal justice including prisons, and in other places. But RP is presently too piecemeal to make the larger social transformations it has the potential to achieve: not just in criminal justice but also at a community level that impacts a larger number of individual citizens. It is vital in the places it presently exists, and developing these programs should continue to be important and celebrated. But restorative practices have not yet reached their potential to impact the lives of larger populations outside of micro level initiatives.

It is less than the sum of its parts. And it will continue to be so without more coherent planning to create the intersections between disparate initiatives. In order to move into a more transformative capacity, several things need to happen.

Firstly, we need to continue to do the work we do at institutional and smaller community levels. But that in itself will not generate more macro level success and impact. We must continue to work with professionals, practitioners, communities, young people, and families. We must start the ripples that will eventually become waves of change at a societal level. But we can’t leave the process of developing a genuinely transformative RP at a macro level to chance and good intentions.

RP is an explicit practice. It needs to be explicit about how change can move from ‘piecemeal’ to becoming more broadly transformational. This means being deliberate about how to generate the gravity needed to move the disparate actions of professionals and practitioners into a more focused process and holistic state. And then we need to find the glue that will bind these initiatives together.

RP is a political act of will. It is a belief that a more just society is possible, and that RP can be one of the means to achieving this. But it also has to engage with the ‘realpolitik’ of the present economic, social, and political landscape. Its good intentions will, in themselves, not be enough to be genuinely transformational beyond micro settings. It is therefore important that RP engages in exploring how it can achieve larger social impact.

The Venn diagrams below suggest ways of looking at this. Each individual circle (setting/action) needs to be developed and become as strong as it can be unto itself (Fig 1). These actions are often happening in the same locality, often by different ‘trainers,’ ‘experts,’ ‘or consultants,’ and there is no sense of a plan (and sometimes even the will) to begin the process of drawing these actions together to create intersections where the circles start to overlap and support each other. We need to move away from young people and families being circled by dodgem car interventions, with all the chaos the often conflicting interventions can bring. There needs to be a coherent plan to draw these interventions together: to create the intersections and maximise potential impact.

As the work in each individual setting gets stronger, it adds strength to others because of the planned, not accidental, synthesis, of a shared understanding of restorative language and behaviours that will be focused on working with young people and families. We also need to realise not all settings can move at the same pace. Whilst having the end goal in place (to be a restorative community or city where all services and settings contribute) we need to plan for the landscape each initiative has to navigate. The larger goal is then to create these wider community, and municipal level impacts for restorative practice, to facilitate the gravitational pull required to bring these pieces together to create an impact greater than the sum of its parts (Fig.2).

RP is not developed in a vacuum. The social, political, economic, and cultural contexts are the earth within which RP has to grow. RP actors have to work within the existing context, whilst also looking for opportunities to change it. The risk of ‘contamination’ must be constantly guarded against. Restorative practice should be transformational, without losing sight of its diversity, equity, decolonizing, and inclusive values. These must guide the overall plan which will work to bring a gravity to separate activities and create the intersections of practice, whilst striving to place young people, families, and communities at the heart of every decision.

So, we need debate between practitioners, professionals and academics that work in the field, but not in a bubble. There must be a critical understanding of the strengths and barriers to services working in the field. There must be understanding of the social, political and cultural context in which practitioners work. There must be further development of ways to engage with young people, families, and communities so they can inform decisions and not only be on the receiving end of them. And there must be engagement with policy-makers and local and national decision makers. If we can do that, and be clear we will work best in the spaces where the circles intersect we can actually achieve stronger, richer and more effective outcomes.

Information on restorative cities and institutions can be followed up at the following sites:




The International Journal of Restorative Justice, Issue 2 2019