I first heard this question from Tim Chapman, in a talk he made in CDI a couple of years ago - I cannot remember on which occasion, it was a blessed time of in person gathering, a century ago, before the pandemic.
The title of the talk was ‘Whither Restorative Practices in Ireland’ - which I understood intuitively, having never heard the expression. It was using two meaningful metaphors: human growth - birth, childhood, adolescence and adulthood- to describe the development of RP and RJ (Restorative Justice) and also the image of the ‘eco-system’ to understand how RP was being and becoming in the local context.
His idea was that RP and RJ were at the stage of adolescence in Ireland: search for identity, idealism, judgmental towards previous generations, seeking attention and approval from grown ups etc… And also that it has to move from an ego-system (focused on practitioners, models, fidelity, outcomes…) to an eco-system (focused on vision, values, evidence, principles and standard, flexibility, experiences, victims, commitment to action and accountability…).
Asking the questions ‘who owns RP?’ was an invitation for reflection and self awareness. And a provocative question: restorative thinking is everybody’s ownership. The idea that some people, whoever they are, are owning RP is in itself non restorative and is a way of questioning practitioners' bias and attachment to power.
It was relevant for me at two levels:
My own practice was still very self centred - and still is, although less. It’s much too often about me, what I think about a situation and what should be done. My difficulty to adapt, my eagerness to stick to models and scripts. And that role people can give me sometime by turning to me to deal with a conflict and in which I pose a bit too gracefully...
Then it also fitted some of my experience of becoming an RP trainer in schools and working with teachers. I can share a few aspects:
- The focus on training only or mostly teachers and SNAs - adults - ‘because they will model it to the students’. I have always struggled with this. I would love to think it's mostly a pragmatic approach: because it would take too long or would be too complex or maybe too costly to train students, the focus is on adults in schools who can then bring them back to their students. But many teachers I have met or trained seem to consider the leadership and ownership could only come from them, that young people are not equipped to run restorative processes and that it can only come from the top to the bottom.
- The insistence on mastering tools and processes rather than focusing on the mindset: the training is designed around acquiring some tools, the 'restorative toolkit', and trainees are looking for solutions readily applicable in the classroom.
- The focus on evaluating the impact of the training only through the lens of the teachers or practitioners.
- The fact that the vast majority of trainers are white middle class settled native practitioners - as teachers are in schools.
And paradoxically there was my own discomfort, some kind of imposter syndrome that I experience a lot in my RP work - from being the only non native speaker (painfully reminded me one day when I was told that an ‘Irish voice’ would be better for a specific project I had been asked to lead: it was not meant to be hurtful or devaluing and it lead to a restorative conversation where I got to clarify the distinction between native and Irish, but I believe it would have never happened if there was an average representation of ‘foreign’ voices in the field) - from being interested in all sort of alternatives to traditional schooling when mostly working with teachers in schools - from my lack of experience in running the most formal restorative processes… A feeling of being a guest, kindly tolerated, in a private club.
The angle of this picture is not helping in describing the great work done by restorative practitioners around Ireland, the good will of all involved, the generosity and kindness, the inspiration and the enthusiasm and of course the ongoing and significant transformation of schools' culture from punitive to restorative, the likely increased wellbeing of young people, the expected better outcomes for them and for all.
But still, it seemed to me RP here are owned by a certain class of Irish people, which I am lucky to be part of some days - maybe a bit on the margins at other times.
I am not currently working in an Irish school and I am not in a position to say exactly how RP are lived every day in all schools that are working on implementing them, and to see if there is a gap (one could say a Tragic Gap) between the intentions, the practices and the experiences of adults and children in the schools.
I never worked in an Irish school, because as a migrant, I was reminded recently by this article, it's almost impossible. (I remember having looked at the process some years ago, to get recognition of my French qualifications and my 15 years of experience in the French system: the cost of the application, including the translations of all my diplomas, was prohibitive - and if I spent all this money but still didn't get a job?). Like many other countries Ireland is very protective of its education system - in France, a foreign national cannot become a Civil Servant, and can only teach with temporary contracts. And the schooling system tends to reproduce itself, 'good' students becoming 'good' teachers. The fact that non-Irish speakers are excluded from primary school teaching is also contributing to the reproduction (Although I can see very simple ways of maintaining a good level of Irish while including teachers from different backgrounds).
The ownership of RP in schools is also an institutional matter: practitioners are caught up in a system with very strong institutional needs, a blind attachment to roles, hierarchy and practices. I agree with the description from Fielding and Moss (2010) of the state of schooling in many European countries: it is dominated by neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, and a middle class who sees schooling as a technical practice that needs to be run by experts. Of course, there are exceptions and projects that nuance and contradict this three lines stance...(that would require a much longer piece by itself, I highly recommend reading Fielding and Moss' book).
The same way the purpose of education seems to be blurry sometimes for teachers caught up in contradictory aspirations - 'producing' students that will adapt to the market economy (be flexible, creative and get good jobs) and nourishing in a ethic of care young persons who will flourish and live 'a good life' - the purpose of RP can be lost in the blur: are we implementing RP to 'manage' student's behaviours in a more efficient way or are we becoming restorative to fully honour the worth of each individual in the school community?
Dorothy Vaandering (2010, 2011) has pointed out this difficulty when redesigning the IIRP social discipline window into the relationship window, and when insisting in calling RP in schools 'Restorative Justice in Education' (RJE) with 'Justice in in its primary sense as honouring the worth of the other' to give educators a clear 'compass' to follow.
I am worried that RP in school are being institutionalised. I am anxious when I hear it could be part of a curriculum. It reminds me of a funny article written in the pedagogical magazine (Les Cahiers Pédagogiques - sorry only in French) I used to read when I was still teaching. The author imagines the 'Belote' a famous French card game, was taught in school following a curricula starting in 3rd Year. And the article ends like this: If schools were teaching students how to play the 'Belote', after four years of study, three quarters of the students would think themselves as incompetent, one quarter would be able to play theoretically, without having ever touched a card.... But of course, they wouldn't have any appetite for it. I am aware the article highlights some issues that are very relevant for the French schooling system (highly theoretical). But I could see a similar joke being done about the 'teaching' of RP in Irish schools. Maybe the results would be students learning by heart scenarios of past restorative conferences to be sure to get enough points at the LC...
To come back to Tim Chapman's metaphor, schools are very much ego-systems. But RP are radical - it’s about considering students as ’subjects’, fully ‘capable’ and ‘lovable’, expect from them and support them to be fully human (Vaandering 2010). RP have the potential of being the lever to achieve great changes in schools, if the ownership can be shared.
And maybe first steps for doing this could be:
- to train children and adults
- to have children and adults running restorative processes and allow the blurring of roles
- to have children and adults in RP implementation teams in schools.
- to make sure children's needs and adult's needs are overstepping the needs of the Institution. (it’s a bit abstract and would require a much longer piece, but maybe some will see already what I mean here)
- to measure the impact of the training and the implementation from the outcomes it creates for students and adults (and not only from an adult perspective).
- to make sure the restorative processes are culturally appropriate and adapted to all present in the school community (by involving minorities).
Vaandering, D, Evans, K, (2016) he little book of Restorative Justice in Education, New York, Good Books.
Fielding, M, Moss, (2010) Radical Education and the Common School: A Democratic Alternative, London, Routledge.
Vaandering, D (2011) A faithful compass: rethinking the term restorative justice to find clarity, Contemporary Justice Review, 14:3, 307-328, DOI: 10.1080/10282580.2011.589668
Vaandering, D (2010) A window of relationships: enlarging the social discipline window for a broader perspective. Presented on October 14, 2010 13th World Conference of the International Institute for Restorative Practices http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/Hull-2010/Hull-2010-Vaandering.pdf
Dorothée is a Franco-Irish restorative practitioner and trainer, she is Alternatives to Violence Project coordinator, a peer led restorative programme run in prisons. She is an ex-secondary school teacher and now a self directed learning facilitator.
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