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.


Today was my first day in a Queensland school and things started very well with a totally engaging visit to Villanova College, near the centre of Brisbane. Hosting me today was the Vice-Rector (Deputy Principal equivalent) Graeme George, who is currently 2IC at the college. Also giving time to me while Graeme taught was John Goodwin, the Head of the Middle School (yrs 7-9). VC is a quite unique school in that it is one of only two in Australia following the Augustinian Catholic traditions – the other being in Sydney. It is a boys school of approximately 1100 students, from years 5-12 (ages approx 11-18).

Prior to major school reforms beginning in 2003/2004, student’s behaviour (misbehaviour) was managed using a mixture of detentions, ‘write-outs’ (writing lines, I presume – I never checked) and suspensions. Back then it was a ‘two-school’ system only (not the junior/middle/senior structure of today) and the secondary school in particular was caught in a recurrent pattern of punishing students who would often reoffend. John said that some students would turn up for detentions even if none were assigned, so conditioned they were to ‘living’ on detention.

Things began to shift in late 2003 when the school leadership acknowledged that the different elements of school life were not in accord with each other – and some times working antagonistically. There was a sense that the progress made in the first 55 years of VC had come to a natural conclusion and a new plan was required to reposition VC for the next 55 years. Arising out of this challenge came the Schooling Project which Graeme explained as a process of throwing all the pieces (of VC school life) into the air and letting them settle into a coherent whole.

This bold process was described by Graeme as an enormous leap of faith by the Rector (Principal). Part of the investment required came in the form of a small two-person research team (Graeme being one of them) that would ensure that the Schooling Project was founded upon a synthesis of ‘best practice’ in the necessary fields. As part of the change process, the school was closed for a week and the staff were immersed in three days of consultation and training – after which the direction forward was clear (95% buy-in).

As my focus must necessarily stay with RPs, I will not go into details but the other main strands besides RPs decided upon by the end of 2004 were:
-Dimensions of Learning – as a pedagogic framework (social/emotional development)
-Curriculum Framework – aims, beliefs about learning
-Augustinian Pedagogy.
Besides VC placing importance upon ‘Habits of Mind’ they have gone an extra step – and a vital one, I believe. VC has acknowledged core beliefs around, Habits of Mind and Heart’ – thereby drawing emphasis upon ethical elements to the cognitive process.

With historic management of behaviour using a ‘centralised’ (essentially depersonalised) punitive system, the college was in quandary. Although the college had always stood beside the Augustinian notion of “Love the sinner, hate the sin”, the punishment approach contradicted this powerful call. Serendipitously, at this time Graeme happened upon restorative justice authorship by Ted Wachtel (USA) and Terry O’Connell (AUS) which clearly represented an ideal framework for this vital element of VCs Schooling Project – RJ affirms the person whilst challenging the wrong-doing.

Although the indication was that (RJ) restorative practices represented the ‘missing link’, the school leadership was cognisant of some staff’s apprehension about losing the familiar approaches towards errant behaviour. Following the maxim of “Evolution, not Revolution” the historic punitive system was not dismantled but shifted to the extremities of the behaviour management systems, giving room for restorative practices to address the root causes of conflict.

A decision had to be made about which sector of staff to align training with. Approximately 5 % of staff fell into the category of ‘early adopters, 5% indicated no intention of quickly reconsidering their attitudes towards discipline, and the other 90% or so were ‘fence-sitting’ in the middle, waiting to be convinced either way - accordingly, the training was targeted at the ‘middle’ group. Most of the acclaimed Australian practitioners were involved in some level during the development of VCs systems and processes, either in a consultation role or as trainers: Marg Thorsborne, Terry O’Connell and Peta Blood - John Braithwaite and Brenda Morrison of ANU gave great support too.

Although outside presenters were of vital value in early years of staff development (circa 2004), the school has increasingly found it more useful to run training ‘in-house’. This was in keeping with the VC tradition of valuing staff expertise and allowed very ‘Villanova College specific’ issues to be addressed. The commitment to RP training in staff development sessions has been significant, and ongoing. The intention of the school is to have all Year Level Coordinators and Heads of School trained in full-conferences – this has been achieved but required constant attention with movement of staff.

I was highly engaged by Graeme’s theory about how best to train staff –it was fascinating to me because Graeme is the first person who I have met who has the same opinion as me – this is that for staff to best run the low-intrusion (and preventative) aspects of RPs in the classroom/grounds, they ideally require participation in the full-conference training. By understanding the subtleties of a full conference, Graeme believes that staff are able to translate their learning highly effectively into lower-intrusion practices. Doubtlessly, there are resourcing implications for this ideal.

What has been the end result of this large commitment by the school and staff? In the words of John, within one year there was a significant reduction in student behaviour issues and 2-3 years later the numbers of students on ‘Friday detention’ has dwindled to “almost nothing”. Incidents in the classroom are largely handled by the teachers. If things are getting tricky, there is a ‘mediation room’ where students are asked to reflect upon the choices they have made – and the student is expected to put the damage right with his teacher (accountability is an important element of RPs for Villanova College). The focus at all times is attempting to use the wrong-doing as an educative opportunity.

By John’s opinion, most (90%) of the 1100 students are on-board with the school’s values, a smaller number require restorative interventions and a very small number (2-5%) actually require full conferences. In major incidents such as fights, students are never suspended automatically because there is the recognition that there was a root cause for the conflict that needs to be addressed. Parents receive a copy of any agreement that arises (as for ‘mediation room’ processes) and if students do not engage with the restorative opportunity, the detention/suspension process remains an option.

Parents are kept abreast of all significant concerns in the child’s schooling, including behaviour. Graeme has provided training to staff at a special information evening and has also followed up during regular parent-group meetings.

Currently VC is undertaking a major awareness-building and support programme surrounding bullying. Between John and Graeme, it was explained to me how students are surveyed and apparent victims and offenders identified – support is provided for the ‘victims’ and accountability demanded of the ‘offenders’. Recognising the consistent findings of research, considerable effort is given to the ‘bystander’ group – acknowledging that bullying almost never happens without an audience of some kind.

I left Villanova College with my head bursting with impressions. I saw some wonderful moments of interaction between staff and students and was deeply impressed by Graeme’s depth of understanding re RPs. Thank you, Graeme – Thank you, John. Best Wishes to you both.