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My Restorative Journey and the Story of Hull, UK
Estelle Macdonald, Headteacher, Collingwood Primary School, Hull, UK, and Director, Hull Centre for Restorative Practice

Posted 2009-10-22

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It is a privilege to be part of this conference, and I am delighted to be able to share with you my story and the beginning of the story of Hull’s restorative journey.

But let me take you back a step and explain how this all began.

In 2004, as a new headteacher, I took on a school in “special measures.” At the time I felt the community of the school was in crisis — there were disconnected relationships, people in conflict and little coherence or shared vision of how to move forward.

We worked hard at Collingwood to address these issues to provide the right environment for learning for everyone. We shared a compelling vision based on high challenge and high support and the use of circles in classes. I recognize now that many of the tools we used were restorative and certainly our philosophy was a restorative one, even though we lacked the vocabulary to describe it as such.

Collingwood came out of special measures quickly, and two years later when OFSTED inspectors came back to see us they judged the school to be “outstanding.” The lead inspector used the phrase “with the realistic potential to become exceptional.”

I clearly remember the HMI pacing up and down outside my office saying, “Estelle, you have something very special and unique here — somehow we have to be able to make your practice explicit — we need to be able to share what you are doing with others.”

This set me on a quest, not only to make our practice explicit, but also to improve and refine it. I went to talk to Paul Nixon (who happens to be my brother). Paul is an international speaker on family group conferencing, and we hold the same values and beliefs about people. I shared my practice with Paul and he said: “Well what you are doing is restorative practices. You need to go and talk to [IIRP president] Ted Wachtel — you’ll love him.”

The next day I fired off an email to Ted, entitled “Paul Nixon’s sister” and I attached my OFSTED report, a brief explanation of my practice rationale, and beliefs and some ideas on how I thought he could help me.

I then went out to a meeting, and when I returned my secretary said, “Estelle, some mad American has been ringing you!” I returned the call, and Ted and I spoke for about an hour on the phone. I realized quickly as we spoke that what he was saying and offering had massive implications, not just for my little primary school but actually for all of us in Hull.

Two important things happened immediately after that phone call. The first was Ted invited me to Bethlehem the following week — “Are you mad enough to come over next week?” he challenged me. I readily accepted.

The second thing that happened was that Nigel Richardson, the director of Children and Young People’s Services in Hull, came to visit Collingwood. I remember Nigel had the humility to ask, “What is it that has made the difference in your school and what do we need to do more of?” I realized as we talked that we shared the same values and beliefs about children and people.

My visit to Bethlehem was inspiring, and the more I talked with Ted, the more I realized this was what we needed to move us on.

When I visited the Community Service Foundation school in Bethlehem and had the opportunity to sit in a circle with the young people there and listen to how they dealt with their issues, my overwhelming emotion was shame. Despite our huge successes at Collingwood and in Hull, it became apparent to me that there were some ways of dealing with challenging behaviour that we hadn’t even thought of, and more importantly, there were children and young people in Hull whom we were letting down badly.

I asked Ted if he would help me. I returned from my trip inspired and excited — I really believed we could use this experience and expertise to make a difference in Hull. I sent an email to all schools in Hull, inviting them to a briefing on what I had discovered.

I will never forget that cold December night when I put out 30 chairs in my school hall and over 100 people turned up! My intention was to canvass some support to run a one-day conference where Ted and (IIRP training and consulting director) Bob Costello could come to Hull and introduce us to restorative practices. The interest was so great that we ended up running three one-day conferences back to back. It was exciting. It seemed it wasn’t just me who thought this would help us in Hull.

The headteachers drove the demand for the initial three one-day conferences, and they were very successful. One headteacher in particular, Chris Straker, the head of Endeavour High School, was very interested in adopting restorative practices, and I talked to Chris about it and arranged for him to meet and talk with Ted. Ted persuaded Chris to adopt a whole-school training model, and two months later Ted flew back to Hull to work with the British IIRP team to deliver a whole-school training to the 120 staff at Endeavour. Chris and his staff started their own restorative journey; this has been documented in the film made on Endeavour.

At Collingwood we continued our journey. The conferencing model added much to our practice, and we worked hard on refining and furthering what we knew worked already but using some new tools and experiences that we learned through IIRP training and consultation. As we improved relationships the benefits happened quickly: reduced disruption in lessons, reduced lost breaks or privileges, reduced racial incidents, improved attendance both of staff and pupils, improved punctuality and improved family engagement. These results then impacted on even more significant figures relating to pupil progress and attainment. The quality of speaking and listening has improved standards in literacy, and greater pupil and family engagement has improved attendance and achievement, while also significantly decreasing our level of complaints and conflict in the community.

At this time Nigel Richardson met with Ted and was excited about the possibilities the IIRP could offer Hull. Nigel supported us by funding a two-year project in Riverside (an inner-city area of Hull) on restorative practices. This was well supported by the IIRP both nationally and internationally. We set up a small consortium of skilled professionals in the form of the Hull Centre for Restorative Practice, a very small team of us that included myself, Chris Straker, Mark Finnis, Paul Carlile and latterly Jo Faulkner. Then we began to work on spreading the word on restorative practices and offering training and consultancy to not just schools but all organizations in the Riverside area that “touch the lives of children.” Our aim was to create as near as possible a restorative community where all professionals, be they teachers, social workers, health professionals, police, youth offending team — anyone dealing with children and young people — did so in a restorative way.

We needed to enable practitioners and organizations to articulate clearly the rationale for their practice and provide a common framework to improve relationships: establish rights, accountabilities and responsibilities to shared community values. We wanted to improve behaviour and attitudes and provide explicit tools within a defined framework to challenge unacceptable behaviour, resolve conflict and repair harm. It was also our aim to use restorative practices not only to bind organizations together in a common explicit purpose, but also to bind professionals across services.

We all realized this was a massive challenge, but we had an inspirational team backed by Nigel and his senior officers. We quickly established who were the champions of restorative practices and set up a management group of key movers and shakers from each area of children’s services — people who not only “really got it” but had the enthusiasm to drive it in their organization and, crucially, decision-making power to make the changes necessary.

This group of people has been fundamental to the success of the Riverside project. The workshop on leadership will explore this further.

We realized quickly that just training was not enough. We had to build up support structures to support the practice emerging in organizations. We also knew we had to work with the IIRP to quickly build capacity in Hull, so we began to train key people at the highest level to establish a strong training team that represented all organizations. We worked on the mantra “invest in the best.” The cream certainly did rise to the top, and I was inspired by some outstanding practioners who committed hours of personal time and effort to improve their practice and upskill themselves quickly.

We offered universal training to all organizations and then targeted leaders with leadership training and lead practitioners with further training and support. We set up support networks initially for headteachers but then for lead practitioners and for the police.

We provided the targeted support in stages, and whilst focusing our efforts in Riverside, we didn’t refuse training or support to anyone outside Riverside.

Early impacts were evident in schools particularly quickly. Across the nine other schools in Riverside in phase one of the project, we saw significant reductions in classroom disruption (79 percent), exclusions from break (92 percent), days lost to fixed-term exclusions (81 percent), reported verbal abuse to staff (79 percent), reported physical abuse pupil to pupil (80 percent), incidents at lunchtime (82 percent) and referrals to the headteacher or senior leadership team (92 percent).

Headteachers reported that the climate in their schools had never been better, that staff, pupils, parents and partners to the school noticed the difference, were happier and more productive.

In January of this year we trained 12 young people to be trainers in restorative practices, and these young people have helped train other children in restorative practices, as well as running circles in primary schools around transition and bullying.

About 18 months into the project the excellent engagement and impacts in schools led us to start the families project. This was an extension of the Riverside restorative practices project. It was intended to provide a way to drive restorative practices even deeper into Riverside schools by working with the hardest to reach children and their families. The idea grew from a very successful pilot at Collingwood during year one of the project, where a child in year six with attendance, behaviour and achievement issues moved from disengagement, nonattendance and disruptive behaviour to 100-percent attendance and successful happy engagement, ultimately leading to improved achievement. What is also notable about this story is that as a result of her child’s success, mum managed to go back to work for the first time in 15 years, and her new self-esteem and pride in her achievements is truly heartwarming.

We asked Riverside heads to identify their hardest-to-reach children, choosing children with attendance, behaviour or achievement issues, and heads identified a key worker for the project worker to work with. The intention was to work with the school’s nominated key worker to model restorative practices in the family and to support them in their initial home visits. In addition the team acted as a liaison with key workers in the identified support services. Each school was assigned a social worker, and a direct link to family group conferencing service was provided to families who could benefit from the FGC service.

The impact of this project in a short space of time has been fantastic — initial data indicates impressive improvements in attendance, engagement and positive changes in behaviour, but I think what moves me most are the individual life-changing stories, which families and children have reported as a result of these processes. Like the six-year-old child who attended school less than 50 percent of the time, and when she did, she was in diapers; she now attends 100 percent of the time and without the diapers! Or the child who could not work in his class because he was so disruptive; he has gone from zero-percent time in class to 100-percent engagement in class. Or the sisters who were elective mutes in school and the family who refused to engage to discuss the issues, now verbal, happy participants in school life, with parents who engage and interact with school regularly.

It is not just schools, though, that have enjoyed great successes. The police in Hull are great advocates and drivers of restorative practices. Again there are some impressive stories and impacts. In the last year 19 neighbourhood disputes involving juveniles and eight neighbourhood disputes involving adults have been resolved using restorative conferencing, as have 13 offences of criminal damage, shop theft and harassment involving juvenile offenders. There are have also been a number of occasions where restorative practice has been used to deal with neighbourhood disputes, but they are not recorded formally. In addition, on a number of occasions police officers have successfully supported restorative conferences in Riverside schools.

Out of 27 recorded offences by juveniles dealt with by restorative conferencing rather than a formal criminal justice route, to date none of these offenders have received a further criminal justice sanction for an offence committed after the RP intervention.

The Youth Offending Team who were one of the first in the city to embrace restorative practices have led significant developments in the service. There has been effective cross-service working with the police, which in recent months has led to the YOT having a permanent presence at the police station as part of a triage process. This process means that following the arrest of a young person, the gravity of the offence is assessed on a three-point scale and for gravities of one or two, a restorative intervention takes place. This is followed by a full assessment of the YOT team and diversionary intervention and support.

Between 1st July and 9th July, 41 young people were brought into custody as a result of the triage process. Four went into criminal disposal; the remainder were offered a restorative intervention. Outcomes are presently being monitored and evaluated.

There are many more positive stories to tell. A children’s home using restorative practices reports an 85 percent reduction in call-outs to the police, and there is a great story of a children’s home just beginning to use restorative practices, making a call out to the police and the police arriving and refusing to arrest the child until a circle had been done by the staff. They offered to come back if they couldn’t sort it! Needless to say it wasn’t necessary!

The stories keep coming in, yet we know we still have a long way to go. I remain constantly inspired by the professionals I am privileged to work with. Over the past two years I have been able to work with a wide range of agencies, and their commitment to the mission is truly inspiring.

As you may have gathered by now, I am committed to Hull. I believe in Hull. I live within the city boundaries, and my children are educated in our city schools. I have a big investment in its future and the future of our young people. I believe we have a duty to create an opportunity and give children the tools to take responsibility for their future and the future of the city. I believe restorative practices can help create the right climate for children to have a voice, to develop the ability to build relationships, to resolve theirs and others’ conflicts, and to build better communities where they can feel safe and confident to learn and grow into responsible, successful and honourable citizens.

Hull is fortunate to have this opportunity. It is also fortunate to have a visionary leader in Nigel and the support of Ted and the IIRP in moving now on to an even greater challenge — to create the world’s first restorative city!

I hope that I will be around to witness the impacts of a city committed to restoring community in a disconnected world, and that my children, and the children whose lives I touch, can move forward with hope in their hearts and the skills and knowledge to make Hull, Britain and then the world a better place.