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Restorative justice, restorative approaches and schools

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Restorative Justice (RJ) has been described as ‘a global social movement’ (Robinson and Shapland 2008: 337) and provides a powerful alternative paradigm to punitiveness for addressing wrongdoing and harmful behaviour in a range of contexts. However, there are many who believe that the ‘justice’ aspect of the approach is not transferable (or should not be transferred) outside the criminal justice system. The reference to ‘justice’ in the term RJ is frequently changed in work with children where it is common to refer to Restorative Approaches [RAs] (Hayden and Gough, 2010) or Restorative Practices (Sherman and Strang, 2007) – to avoid the taint of the criminalisation process. In the rest of this article, therefore, RAs will be used as the preferred term in relation to work with schools.

Responding to crime, anti-social and problem behaviour in schools

Beyond the issue of terminology and a focus on ’justice’, there is also a concern that the essential nature of RJ might somehow be diluted by being transferred to contexts such as schools. This article develops from research on crime and anti-social behaviour in schools (Hayden and Martin, 2011; see Hayden's earlier CrimeTalk article). These latter sources detail the scale and nature of problem behaviour in and around schools; and, review what is known about responding to this behaviour. We argue that, although crime and anti-social behaviour can be found in and around schools, we need to take care in the way we talk about young people’s behaviour; and, avoid generalising purely on the basis of the most problematic or extreme events. Most of the behaviour that is experienced as problematic by young people and adults in schools is not criminal and it is even a matter of opinion whether ‘anti-social’ is the best term to use to describe it. 

Teachers and educational researchers tend to have a specialist language for the different types of behaviour that often present a problem in the school context: such as ‘disruptive’ (as in disrupting the lesson), ‘challenging’ (as in behaviour that is a challenge for the teacher to manage), disaffected’ (as in behaviour that shows the individual doesn’t like the lesson, or school in general). Nevertheless the language of the criminal justice system has crept into schools; partly as a result of the ‘criminalisation of social policy’. The use of RAs in schools could, on the face of it, seem to be an example of this latter process. Fortunately, schools have a great deal of discretion about how they respond to behaviour that could be regarded as criminal.

The recognition that many ‘crimes’ in schools are minor and that many incidents would be better dealt with by school disciplinary systems is evidenced in jointly agreed guidance and Home Office Counting Rules. Since 2007, guidance issued jointly by the DCSF (Department for Children Schools and Families) and ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers), provides that:

"..police officers attending school premises may become aware of incidents that would amount to a minor crime in law. The guidance allows for an officer not to record a crime provided it is not serious and the school, child and parent/ responsible adult agrees to this; and that it should be dealt with via the school’s disciplinary procedure’"(Millard and Flatley 2010: 4, referring to Home Office Counting Rules for Recorded Crime).

How children behave in and around school, the victimisations many suffer, and how adults respond to this is an enduring concern. Children learn a lot more at school than the formal taught curriculum. Through ‘the hidden curriculum’, schools transmit attitudes and values promoted in the way the school is organised, in the expectations about how people relate to each other and by the achievements recognised and rewarded. This matters because it relates not only to individual wellbeing but to the wider wellbeing of future citizens. RAs are one response to managing relationships and behaviour in and around schools in a positive and inclusive way. RAs are already well established in schools across the world (see Hopkins 2011 for an overview). This article is informed by my own research in this area (Hayden 2009) as well as participation in an ESRC seminar series on Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools, which ran from 2009-11 [1].

Central to a simple conception of where a restorative approach sits, in relation to the necessity to respond to harm and wrongdoing, is the idea of the ‘social control window’, shown in Figure 1. This illustrates the tensions between support and control in some responses, and emphasises the dual benefit of high levels of support and control in restorative approaches. Adults are authoritative, rather than authoritarian; the approach emphasises reintegration into a community (‘the school’) rather than stigmatising the individual. The emphasis is on working with people, rather than doing things to or for them.

Figure 1: The social control window




Source: adapted from Wachtel and McCold (2001) and reproduced in Hopkins (2011: 201).

Restorative Justice (RJ) and Restorative Approaches (RAs)

It is common in writing about RJ to present it as an idea in opposition to existing systems of punishment and discipline and/or to delineate it as a series of programmes or processes targeted on certain problems. In the fields of education (e.g. Hopkins 2004; Hayden 2009) and social care (e.g. Hopkins 2009; Hayden and Gough 2010), we often focus on the values and world view that underpin a restorative approach and how it corresponds with professional values in these settings. Research in the criminal justice area is more focussed on victim satisfaction and participation, as well as a reduction in re-offending. ‘Victim’ and ‘offender’, quite apart from using the language of the criminal justice system, are not always readily identifiable in work with children, where conflict may have a complex history.

Several years ago Sherman and Strang (2007) conducted a review of research on RJ with a particular focus on re-offending. They concluded that research on RJ was more extensive and positive than many other policies that have been implemented. These conclusions are based largely on two forms of RJ: face-to-face meetings (‘encounter’) among all parties connected to a crime and court-ordered financial restitution (or ‘reparation) (p.4). Their analysis of the evidence base on schools was that it was promising but lacking in good quality evidence to date. They highlight the need for a whole school approach, rather than a focus on using conferencing for serious incidents.

Van Ness (2010) includes three key conceptions of RJ that are relevant to work in schools: the ‘repair’ of harm, the ‘encounter’ of those affected, and the ‘transformation’ of relationships and culture (p. 8). The concept of ‘transformation’ clearly goes further than most policy-based exhortations to use RJ as a programme (or skill set) to achieve particular ‘outcomes.’ This need for transformation is the challenge at the heart of RJ as a powerful critique of professionalised criminal justice systems. Such fundamental challenges to schools were put forward decades ago by Illich (1971) in Deschooling Society; he argued that formal schooling is unnecessary and even harmful to society. This latter critique shares many of the beliefs of RJ in relation to human needs and capacity to develop in a positive away, if liberated from the confines built up by professionals and institutions.

The range of contexts in which RJ has been used is immense. The use of RJ extends from repairing state harms in post-conflict societies, such as post-Apartheid South Africa and Northern Ireland, through diversionary and reparation schemes within criminal justice systems, through mediation in community- and family-based conflicts to its use as a way of managing behaviour and relationships in schools and children’s residential care. Given this range of applications, critics (and purists) often ask whether what is happening is restorative justice. For key authors (some of whom are also trainers in RAs) working with children, such as Hopkins (2004, 2009), the concept of RJ is problematic because of its negative associations with the criminal justice system and the tendency of a justice approach to focus on the most serious behaviours. Hopkins (2011) prefers the terms Restorative Approaches (RAs) or Practices. In this conception, the focus of RAs in most schools is on managing relationships and behaviour; and in developing a ‘whole school approach’ to these issues.

Restorative Approaches (RAs) and a ‘whole school approach’

The rationale for adopting RAs in schools is clear; and, in a variety of ways the use of these approaches can fit very well with existing practise. Nevertheless, as in the criminal justice system, there is still a need for a ‘paradigm shift’ (Zehr 1990; Hopkins 2011) in the values and practices of the school as an organisation and for many of the staff working in the school. Widespread beliefs about how to maintain ‘discipline’ in schools, the role and status of teachers and also the need to ‘punish’ can be hard to challenge. However, the everyday need to manage relationships, behaviour and the emotions arising from difficult encounters provides a powerful incentive for schools to adopt RAs. External expectations of schools can also provide an additional driver towards using RAs to develop a positive and inclusive school ethos or climate, which in turn is related to successfully managing behaviour and relationships. The connection between behaviour and learning is also well appreciated.

There is a near universal agreement between researchers and policy makers about the need for a ‘whole school approach’ to managing behaviour in schools. Whole school approaches have developed since the Elton Report (DES/WO 1989) in Britain. Although the focus of any whole school approach is ultimately about managing relationships within the school; many schools also reach out to parents and the wider community. The specific focus (or terminology used) varies. For example, VISTA (a European project focussed on the prevention of violence in schools) characterises a whole school approach (‘WSA’) in the following way:

"A successful WSA approach to the promotion of non-violence not only addresses violent behaviour it also improves the climate and ethos of the school, improves relationships among staff, children and young people and parents, it also supports the emotional health and well- being and learning potential of children and young people, and all adult members of the school community" (VISTA 2006: 4).

There is agreement from educational researchers that a 'whole school' approach necessarily includes work at different levels: the individual, the classroom, school-wide; as well as work with the community around the school. The active involvement of young people as well as adults is encouraged (Greene 2006). Further, any approach to problem behaviour has to be continually reviewed and developed in the knowledge that aggressive and problem behaviours cannot be eliminated.

A whole school approach at the ‘universal’ level will help create a school ethos and climate that promotes positive behaviour. The promotion of a whole school approach is apparent in a raft of policies, agreements and strategies that are expected in all schools in Britain: such as behaviour and discipline, anti-bullying, anti-harassment and equal opportunities policies; home-school agreements and particular strategies or approaches to realising these policies and agreements (this is where Restorative Approaches fit in). The use of the curriculum to promote emotional literacy and pro-social values (e.g. through citizenship education, and through teaching and learning strategies) is yet another part of what all schools are expected to do.

Individual pupils often have ‘targets’ they are trying to achieve in relation to their behaviour (as well as academic learning); and the inter-connection between behaviour, learning and teaching strategies is well understood. Some children have individual plans for behavioural and social reasons. In school, more intensive support is provided for individual and small groups of pupils based on an assessment of their educational and social needs. Other provision is partly or wholly provided off the mainstream school site: these provisions focus on the most problematic or vulnerable children. The emphasis is on reintegration, or inclusion, back into mainstream education, wherever possible.

We might conceptualise responses to pupil behaviour as becoming more and more targeted and intense, as the focus is on the minority of pupils who present the most problematic behaviour in school. The work of Morrison (2007) and Hopkins (2011) illustrates how RAs can be adapted and used with different levels of need and as a whole school approach. All in all there is a good ‘fit’ between how RAs can be used and the organisational needs of schools.

Safer Schools, Safer Communities?

Children and young people need to feel safe in school and they need to be able to trust the adults teaching them. Feeling safe is a basic human need and young people are unlikely to achieve in a context where they do not feel safe. Problem behaviour in the school gets in the way of the wellbeing and potential achievements of the young people involved and often those around them too.

Concerns about school safety have become more prominent in recent years partly because of the growing awareness of high-profile (and rare) events that have led to multiple deaths on the school site. Although schools have had to become more aware of the possibility of mass killings on the school site, most of the time their focus is on the more common and everyday ‘micro-victimisations’, particularly those between young people. Nevertheless major events often act as a reference point and culmination of adult fears about the safety of young people in schools. Analysis of the background of young people involved in school shootings has revealed that they were often bullied and did not feel connected with or included in school and the activities of their peer group. So there appears to be an important connection between how schools manage behaviour, and inclusion, and the potential for one of these major events.

The importance of schools and educational achievement in relation to protection against the development of serious anti-social and criminal behaviour is well-known (Farrington 1996; 2002). It is also well-known that schools can make a difference and that school ethos or climate is related to the likelihood of anti-social and criminal behaviour (Rutter et al 1979; Graham and Bowling 1995; Farrington 1996; Hayden and Martin 2011). Schools as universal service providers have great potential to prevent (or reduce) problem behaviour. This involves effective targeting of help to those who are not coping with the demands of school whilst avoiding the potentially negative impact of what might be seen as labelling.

Sutton, Utting and Farrington (2004) argue that preventative services should be presented and justified in terms of children’s existing needs and problems, rather than in relation to any future risk of criminality. Schools occupy a difficult terrain; they can help to ameliorate and reduce problem behaviour or in the worst circumstances they may emphasise and entrench its significance through exclusion from school and other punitive actions. This explicit involvement of schools in crime prevention programmes might be seen as further evidence of ‘net-widening’, or alternatively as evidence of attempts to ‘nip problems in the bud’. There is the potential for schools to occupy both positions simultaneously. The work of ‘Safer Schools Partnerships’ typify these latter issues (see Briers and Dickmann 2011).

So, in sum there are some powerful incentives for schools to use RAs to manage relationships and problem behaviour. Conflicts are inevitable in any community and can provide learning opportunities for understanding the causes of aggressive, violent and problem behaviour. Peace is the goal following a conflict, so for some researchers and practitioners this goal for RAs has been the focus. The wider resonance of this goal for the conflicts within communities, between cultures, as well as between countries, is obvious. Bickmore (2011) makes the important distinction between different types of restorative goal in the use of RAs. She argues that peacekeeping is attractive to many schools where the focus is on the (often temporary) cessation of aggression and violent conflict; and views peacekeeping as negative peace, although this may of necessity be the starting point for using RAs in some schools. Bickmore (2011) advocates that RAs can be used for positive peace through peacemaking (problem-solving dialogue and the resolution of disputes); and, peacebuilding (longer-term processes that address injustice, encourage democracy and nurture healthy social relationships). Schools are the place where diverse groups meet to prepare for their future. The potential for this to be an opportunity for building safer communities is immense. Using RAs in schools provides a framework for beginning make this happen.

[1] Co-ordinated by: Dr Hilary Cremin, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge; Dr Gillean McCluskey, Moray House Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University; Dr Edward Sellman, School of Education, Nottingham University.



Bickmore, K. (2011). ‘Location, Location, Location: Restorative (Educative) Practices in Classrooms’, ESRC Seminar Series: Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools, Seminar 4: Restorative Approaches in Educational Settings. University of Edinburgh, February 16.

Briers, A. and Dickmann, E. (2011) ‘Safer Schools Partnerships’ Chapter 9 in Hayden and Martin (eds) op cit. pp.160-75.

Farrington, D.P. (1996). Understanding and Preventing Youth Crime, York: York Publishing Services Ltd./ Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Farrington, D.P. (2002). ‘Developmental Criminology and Risk-Focussed Prevention’, in M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graham, J. and Bowling, B. (1995). Young People and Crime. Home Office Research Study 145. London: Home Office.

Greene, M. B. (2006) ‘Bullying in Schools: a plea for a measure of human rights’, Journal of Social Issues, 62 (1), pp. 63-79.

Hayden, C. (2009). ‘Family Group Conferences – are they an effective and viable way of working with attendance and behaviour problems in schools?’ British Journal of Educational Research, 35 (2), pp.205-20.

Hayden, C. and Gough, D. (2010). Implementing Restorative Justice in Children’s Residential Care. Bristol: Policy Press.

Hayden,C. and Martin, D. (2011). Crime, Anti-Social Behaviour and Schools. Basingstoke: Palgrave/MacMillan.

Hopkins, B. (2004). Just Schools: A Whole School Approach to Restorative Justice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Hopkins, B. (2009). Just Care: Restorative Justice Approaches to working with Children in Public Care. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Hopkins, B. (2011). ‘Restorative Approaches in UK schools’, Ch. 11 in Hayden and Martin, op.cit. pp.192-211.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row.

Millard, B. and Flatley, J. (Eds.) (2010). Experimental statistics on victimisation of children aged 10 to 15: Findings from the British Crime Survey for the year ending December 2009.England and Wales, 17 June, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 11/10. London: Home Office.

Morrison, B. (2007). Restoring Safe School Communities. Sydney: The Federation Press.

Robinson, G. and Shapland, J. (2008). Reducing Recidivism: A Task for Restorative Justice, British Journal of Criminology, 48(3), pp. 337-59.

Rutter, M., Maughan, B., Mortimore, P., and Ouston, J. (1979) Fifteen Thousand Hours. Secondary Schools and their Effects on Children. Shepton Mallet: Open Books Publishing Ltd.

Sherman, L.W. and Strang, H. (2007). Restorative Justice: the evidence. London: The Smith Institute.

Sutton, C., Utting, D. and Farrington, D. (2004). Support from the Start: working with young children and their families to reduce the risks of crime and anti-social behaviour, DfES Research Report 524. London: DfES.

Van Ness, D. (2010) ‘Restorative Justice as World View’, ESRC Seminar Series: Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools, Seminar 2: International Perspectives on RA, University of Cambridge, June 21-22.

VISTA, Violence in Schools Training Action (2006). A Resource for Practitioners and Policy-Makers and all those working with Children and Young People affected by School Violence.

Wachtel, T. and McCold, P. (2001). ‘Restorative Justice in Everyday Life’, In: H. Strang and J. Braithwaite (Eds.) Restorative Justice and Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zehr, H. (1990). Changing Lenses. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

The videos in this article, reproduced with the kind permission of Belinda Hopkins, come from the Transforming Conflict website. Transforming Conflict is "one of the leading providers of training and consultancy in the UK in the field of restorative approaches in schools, residential care and other youth settings".

Professor Carol HaydenInstitute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, UK.


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