Brian McLaughlin is an Educational Inclusion Officer (EIO) working with the Local Authority in the East Midlands region of the United Kingdom. He is the link officer for several schools within the county covering an age range 5–16 years across all types of school. The interview is with Nicola Preston (EFRJ member) who has been working with Brian on restorative approaches in an attempt to reduce exclusion in educational settings. Brian has been an EIO for over five years but has a long career and interest in youth work and seeking out the voice of young people.

You have worked with young people for many years. What interested you in working with vulnerable and hard to reach young people?

Even as a young child, I used to run around the playground during break times looking to stop any fights that may have broken out. I used to wear my duffel coat as a cape. I honestly thought I was a superhero and it was my duty to protect others from being picked on, harmed or beaten by bullies. I have no idea why I thought this was my life’s duty, perhaps Batman was a bigger influence on me than I had originally recognised!

Brian McLaughlin

As a teenager about to leave school, it was my ambition to work in a laboratory. I spent a few years gaining the necessary qualifications but, after two and a half years, I decided that this was not for me. Whilst working in the laboratory, testing food stuffs, I also volunteered as a Youth Worker. I loved this part of my life so much that, after leaving the scientific community behind, I went on to qualify as a Youth & Community Development Worker.

Since then, I have been fortunate enough to work with some incredible young people, most of whom were deemed to be ‘difficult,’ ‘challenging’ and ‘disaffected.’ I was a drugs worker, walking the streets of an East Midlands industrial town seeking out those young people whose lives revolved around illegal drug use. After five and a half years I went on to set up and manage other youth work projects. I developed strategies and links between different types of youth work practices that enabled us to deal with young people, no matter where they were. In doing so, I was able to establish firm links between centre-based work, street-based work, mobile youth work and outreach. Later, I became a Diversion Officer where we dealt with adults as well as young people who had become involved in the Criminal Justice System. It was here that I learned about mediation and reparation and witnessed how effective and powerful these processes could be in settling and resolving individual differences and seeking closure where possible.

Photo: Brian McLaughlin

I subsequently returned to work as a Youth Worker, managing mostly street based Detached Youth Workers, followed by a more formal role as Co-ordinator for a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), working with those at risk of being permanently excluded from school. My job was to manage one of several units and find ways to engage pupils and prevent permanent exclusion. Those referred to us were in their last year of compulsory schooling. The project was incredibly successful and most completed their last year successfully, gaining qualifications that others thought were not possible. Our success meant we were approached by a number of other schools to set up unique on-site and off-site provisions. It became apparent from the start that schools were referring in two different types of young people, all of whom were aged 11 to 15. Most of the pupils could be worked with positively and reintegrated back to mainstream school within a short period of time but some of those referred had little chance of returning to mainstream.

I believe that the way I approach others through my work in education, stems from being a Youth Worker. I have, over many years, learned to listen to young people; to value them as individuals and to take on board what it is they are saying without judgement. I whole heartedly believe that young people will talk to you, if given the opportunity and they feel that you are genuinely interested in them. For pupils having difficulties in school, this was a massive change in culture. The relationship I had with young people referred to me was not based on confrontation nor power and authority, even though I still represented the institution. It was based on honesty, mutual respect and a willingness to do good and make a difference. We created a curriculum that was based upon emotional literacy. Coming from a youth work background, the academic part of school life came second as we focused more on the emotional literacy of the young person whereas schools were more focused on academic achievements and attendance.

Central to any good youth work practice is the ability to build strong, positive working relationships that are balanced and more equal than a typical pupil/teacher relationship …

By adapting the many skills I had learned as a Youth Worker, I was able to work in a formal educational setting and challenge the establishment if necessary. Central to any good youth work practice is the ability to build strong, positive working relationships that are balanced and more equal than a typical pupil/teacher relationship or, more generally, between an adult and a young person.

When did you get involved with restorative practice?

I had been made redundant in 2010, two days short of 24 years working for the Local Authority. I managed to pick up some work as a Research Consultant with a nearby University. Having time to consider my future and being unsure of what to do, I was introduced to two individuals who ran a local restorative justice organisation. We spoke at length about restorative justice and my own experiences of working with the Local Authority. I was captivated by what they had to say and wanted to be part of it. I was offered the opportunity to become a volunteer Restorative Practitioner. After training I was able to take part in and run restorative justice conferences. Many of the referrals came via the police but not all. Eventually the organisation lost the contract to run the programme but by then I was convinced that restorative justice had much more to offer and could be utilised almost anywhere in life, personal or professional. Using dialogue to involve all those who had been affected by harm was the best way to engage people. The approach provided a support network to help those who are disadvantaged to help keep them on a more positive path. It resonated with my experiences in youth work and some amazing young people who had battled some really challenging situations.

Using dialogue to involve all those who had been affected by harm was the best way to engage people.

You’re now an Education Inclusion officer. Can you tell me a bit about the role?

Primarily, an EIO works with schools and families in relation to school attendance, to help prevent exclusions and to ensure that schools are doing everything they can to engage disaffected young people in learning. To do this, we work with a range of parents/carers, young people and schools to improve inclusion in the formal and statutory education system. Several key strands are found within Education Inclusion:

Children Missing from Education (CME) – school don’t know where the child is, or the child can’t be located. A dedicated CME Officer is able to make all necessary enquiries to try and locate the young person in the UK or abroad.

Prosecution and Attendance – children not attending or refusing to attend school for what appears to be, no justifiable or legitimate reason. I often struggle with this part of the job. Issuing a Fixed Penalty Notice (financial penalty against the parent/carer) does not necessarily consider some family issues that might have led to the absence. Taking the time to listen and have a little bit of patience sometimes works in being able to understand the problems and address the underlying causes of non-attendance.

Elective Home Education (EHE) – keeping children in school is considered the preferred option, but legally, a child can be withdrawn from school and educated ‘at home.’ Some parents/carers, for whatever reason, will apply to formally home educate. As part of the Inclusion Team, we request information from parents on what is being provided educationally for the child. Parents do not have to follow the national curriculum, nor are they required to follow the same times or terms as school. Our ability to check on the child’s educational progress is limited. If we discover that a child is not receiving the education or that the education received is inadequate, we can legally instruct the family to return the child to school.

Inclusion - this is the strand that I am most familiar with and deals with everything else not covered by other strands. We deal with Fixed Term Exclusions, Permanent Exclusions and any attendance issues that do not necessarily lead to a fines or prosecutions. We take referrals from schools and parents/carers alike and respond to families where they believe their child is not receiving the right support in school. The role is much more involved and very diverse in terms of the issues presented. This often requires officers to be a lot more thoughtful and at times creative.

Without A School Place (WASP) Occasionally, we come across young people who are without a school place. In this situation, we need to consider what the child and family would like, what is best for the child and what provisions are available. We still need to remember that all children of statutory school age are entitled to a full-time education. Difficulties arise when attempting to place a young person within a setting that will not work for the child. This is rare but for one of my current WASP individuals, the expectation was that he attended a Pupil Referral Unit. Following a discussion with the young man and his parent this would not serve him well. I argued for him to be given 10 hours of tuition per week with a home tutor instead. I am so pleased that this individual is currently thriving.

Being able to have a dialogue with all those I am involved with, is critical in attempting to meet the needs of the individual and come to a shared understanding.

Being able to have a dialogue with all those I am involved with, is critical in attempting to meet the needs of the individual and come to a shared understanding. I need to be mindful of the cultural aspects of the family. An example would be if a travelling family want to home educate their child. The Home Education Plan provided by parents/carers needs to reflect the traveller culture and that may include preparing the children to function as full members of the travelling community. This may take into consideration roles and traditions that may conflict with my own non-travelling background. I am always aware of my own cultural arrogance and don’t let it interfere with my work. This fits with the restorative ethos. It is all about providing a fair process and meeting individual needs without judging.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges of working restoratively in the education setting today?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe the culture of school is focused more on attendance and academic progress rather than relationships. For me, this is unfortunate, but the way in which schools are set up would make it almost impossible for them to focus on relationships with all pupils.

To build a good and positive working relationship takes time, commitment, energy and the giving up of a significant amount of power and authority. Some schools have managed to create opportunities to focus on relationships to some degree, and consider individual needs including young people’s vulnerabilities, environments and culture. The more that schools can take the time, energy and effort in working with young people at risk of exclusion, the more likely they are to retain that young person and keep them engaged and in school.

Some schools are, unfortunately, process driven. Here are two examples based on real cases. A young pupil overturned a desk after being told by a teacher to move seats. The teacher is aware that the child has a diagnosis of ADHD but still sees the act of flipping a desk as violent, an act of chosen defiance and a potential threat to others. The act is seen as ‘chosen behaviour’ and the pupil is given an exclusion as dictated by school policy and procedures. Another example, a pupil felt that they were not being taken seriously by the school as others bullied him on a daily basis. He took a knife into school, which is truly disturbing, but the child felt that they had little choice, feeling let down constantly by school and feeling they needed the knife to protect themselves. Once discovered, he was automatically excluded permanently, as school has a zero-tolerance policy towards knives. If school had taken time to get to know the child and listened to what they had to say, perhaps the bullying could have been dealt with, possibly using a restorative justice conference.

I am very conscious of the imbalance of power between schools and families.

I am very conscious of the imbalance of power between schools and families. This is a huge issue for me as almost all parents/carers and children that I come across feel that they do not have the understanding, confidence or skills to challenge schools following a permanent exclusion. The family feel that the system is against them and any formal challenge against a permanent exclusion is futile. My role is to reassure the family, explain the process that follows a permanent exclusion, to listen to their concerns and what they would like to happen. I help them to formulate their challenge and how to present it at a Governors meeting or Independent Review Panel (IRP). When a permanent exclusion is overturned, it shows that perhaps the school got it wrong and an injustice was avoided.

Where possible, I try to avoid taking part in short-term political games between the Local Authority and other institutions, e.g. school and other alternative providers. Issues such as finances, transport and what provision to allocate to a child, once permanently excluded, can prove costly. Until matters are resolved, the young person in question misses out on his or her education. The differences of opinion have become a barrier to the young person’s learning and this conflict needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. This can only happen if those involved in the conflict, i.e., the policy holders and those managing the finances, come together and take time to listen to all the voices including those who are being harmed by institutionalised opposing views.

Restorative approaches for me are value driven and resonate with my experience over the last 30 years in my work with young people. My experience of working in schools has highlighted that some schools interpret restorative practices in a way that is not focused on an understanding of some of these core values I remain convinced that if you are ‘person-centred’ and involve the voice of the young person then as a professional, you will be able to improve the quality, intensity and effectiveness of the support offered to them with potentially better outcomes and engagement in learning.

Brian McLaughlin is an Education Inclusion Officer in the United Kingdom. Contact: bri777@sky.com

Dr Nicola Preston is a Senior Lecturer at University of Northampton, United Kingdom and works for the Adjunct Faculty International Institute for Restorative Practices, USA. Contact: nicola.preston2@northampton.ac.uk

Cover photo: aerial view of a school by Chuttersnap