Ethical Considerations

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Finding Your Way

This web-log reads in reverse chronological order. In other words, the first posting that you come to is the most recently written - and you will have to move to the bottom of this page to read how this whole blog began. Sorry for any inconvenience caused.


The day started in dynamic fashion by a visit to Peter Ross (Principal) at Charnwood-Dunlop Primary School. Peter is a straight-shooting guy from a secondary school background who faced the challenge of rebuilding the reputation of a school that was known by many parents and educators in the ACT as being an extremely tough school to teach at. When the journey began five years ago and in his first year there as Principal, he advertised four teaching positions and didn’t receive any applications. As I walked around the classes with Faye and Peter, it was hard for me to imagine that – students were working industriously and calmly in their open-plan classrooms to the accompaniment of that healthy sound of students engaging productively together. And in the last five years, the roll has increased 50%.

Peter said that the greatest results in building C-DPS’s academic achievements have come from RPs – students feeling safe in the classroom and teachers being able to teach. Peter was quick to add that there are still challenging situations on regular occasion, but even the eight or so students who present with mental health concerns respond “beautifully” to practices such as informal ‘corridor conferences’ or more formal events. Even the students who pushed the boundaries furthest knew the questions off by heart, and would quickly enter the process with familiarity.

Peter has experienced frustrations with people’s misunderstandings about RP’s - feeling that RPs are described by some people as only suitable for discrete aspects of school life. Eg OK for dealing with harassment but unsuitable for violence. I could only agree with Peter’s summation that RPs (if based upon commonly held values, agreed upon by a community) can solve any issue because it addresses the root cause of the problem.

I heard a wonderful account that illustrates how embedded RPs are at C-DPS. A yr 4 child (approx 10 yrs old) approached a relief teacher to request a conference with the aim of sorting out a conflict involving several classmates. The reliever did not have a clue what the student was talking about, and said, “What’s a conference?”. The student replied, “I’ll show you” and proceeded to invite four students into a conference situation, ran the conference and reached a mutually satisfactory agreement, all by himself. In fact, most of the schools that I have visited in the last two weeks had stories like that – revealing how the social competence of even young children can be lifted to extraordinary levels through using these processes routinely.

Peter says that RPs have positively transformed the working environment for his teachers – “Teachers are no longer fair game” (for students), and teachers now openly acknowledge the power of this way of working with students. But apparently, old habits are hard to shake and Peter explained that even though his staff were well trained, a few found it hard to drop out of ‘teacher mode’ during a restorative event – teachers doing the talking for students rather creating opportunities for students to speak.

Peter even described a situation where a student had approached a teacher to ask for assistance in running a conference following conflict with another boy. Undoubtedly with the best of intentions, the teacher took matters into his/her hands and reverted to punishment mode, sending the ‘offender’ to do laps around the school field. The ‘victim’ got hugely agitated because he could not express his viewpoint as he had become accustomed to do (through conferencing) and returned to his class where he created havoc. This reminds me of a wonderful quotation (John Braithwaite maybe….?) that we (administrators of justice) ‘steal’ conflicts from the participants of a wrong-doing event.

Peter has found RPs a valuable tool for addressing staff conflicts. He had previously employed the ‘shuttle mediation’ (talking to each complainant in turn, sometimes several times each) but had moved almost entirely to a conference situation where the staff could meet, face each other in a respectful and safe environment and hear first-hand how their actions had affected each other. Parents have seen how powerful the restorative approach can be and numerous families now have the restorative script on their fridge door.

Although Peter will still suspend if he has to, it is now a rare event. In fact, even full conferences are rare events these days as virtually all conflict situations are conferenced on the spot, whether in the classroom or the grounds. Peter says that in many conferences, all he needs is four questions for the victim and two questions for the offender – and the talking/listening that follows does the rest. A highly effective mentoring programme run by Nick (who I never met) rounds out a sound school programme.

Great work, Peter, Wendy and team.

Later that morning Faye and moved on to the relatively more affluent environment of North Ainsley Primary School. Although some families in the community are settled and well-functioning, there are nevertheless significant numbers of migrant children and other students to test the robustness of the school’s systems. Christine Pilgrim (Principal), and senior staff Louise Owens & Carolyn Waters took time out from their busy schedules to share some powerful ideas with Faye and I.

Several years ago RPs ran alongside the traditional responses to wrong-doing – but RPs has essentially entirely replaced the old processes now. It has become such a relatively safe environment that relief teachers actively seek relief work at NAPS. In times gone by, students would relate their RP stories with parents at home – because students now accept RPs as a way of life, they no longer brought every account home and parents even began to contact the school to inquire if NAPS were still using this philosophy.

Louise says that working in a respectful stance towards the school community had meant that staff had to put themselves under scrutiny – and do things differently. For example, there was a staff perception that students were not acknowledging staff – until staff decided that they needed to make a firm practice of greeting students in the corridors (and so on). Needless to say, the students adopted the consistently modelled behaviour and now warmly share courtesies with the staff. Also, Louise said that by regarding their relationship with parents in a fair and honest light, the school could see that there were some issues where parents deserved an apology – the RPs process provided the framework to make amends and move staff and parents on as a united group.

When the move towards a more respectful school culture began several years ago, Peta Blood did considerable staff training, beginning with an investigation of prized values amongst the school community. What was revealed was that the values that were of greatest importance to people were actually being inhibited by the current school policies and procedures. ‘Cascaded’ training followed and the school has now embedded social responsibility so soundly that the focus has turned to academic achievement (without abandoning social priorities).

I was intrigued by a creative school system relating to pastoral care – it reminded me somewhat of concepts I saw at Salisbury High School (Adelaide) earlier in the week. North Ainslie Primary School call the system ‘enrichment’ – with an intention to build a mentoring spirit and create strong connection between all members of the school community. All students are members of enrichment groups (15 students approx., of mixed age, mixed ability, mixed culture), meeting once a fortnight. Following a ‘check-in’ process, the groups join individual teachers around the school in a rotation that takes about 18 months to complete.

The students may learn anything from knitting to guitar to social skills programmes (anything that teachers feel confident to share that is manageable and positive) – the end result is that every student will eventually have a close and positive relationship with every teacher within the school. Before enrichment had begun at the school, there was some staff apprehension about doing duty in unfamiliar areas of the school but nowadays the staff enjoy the confidence that comes with knowing each student as an individual, not just a face.

Communication with parents has deliberately been ‘stepped up’ so that the community have a transparent view of the school ethos and school activities. When ESL children require conferences, interpreters are hired so that a fair process can be followed for everyone.

Thanks to Chris and her entire team for their time and energy – and whoever it was that bought me lunch, thanks!

Final school of the day was Chisholm Primary School which is one of the many schools in Canberra that is facing amalgamation. Although the movement towards a restorative philosophy only began in 2004, Principal Marli Aryton has found that RPs have been vital in moving though moments such as a tense school beginning to 2007.

On one occasion this year Marli held a circle of 55 students and 3 staff as a means of responding to an unsatisfactory learning environment. The circle was held over three different times – following the first circle, many good ideas came to light from the students themselves. Teachers had been open about their frustration and the circle process eventually finished with some students in tears and teachers embracing each other. In Marli’s words, “The power of circles is incredible – that structure has helped claw the situation back. They (the students) were part of the problem – so they had to be part of the solution”.

Marli has used RPs for addressing staff conflict and has found that bringing staff together has brought a level of self-awareness that has been required. Data is collected wherever possible to keep the process grounded upon evidence rather than anecdote. The data has shown that the first hour of each day is a critical time for a group of high risk students who bring conflict from home regularly. To attend to this challenge, Marli uses Life Space Crisis Intervention to deal with the tensions, significantly reducing conflict later in the day.

Good Luck with the amalgamation process, Marli.