Zero Tolerance and Tackling Racism Restoratively in UK Education


Deborah Mitchell, CEO of RJ Working writes:

Of course, the premise we start from in any response to racism is zero tolerance: it is unacceptable, it is abhorrent.  The trouble is, racism is everywhere, and cannot always be separated out, it must be detected ‘in and amongst’ other aspects of communication and relationship.  Deeply embedded in UK cultures and structures, racism affects experiences and perceptions, the ways in which self and others are understood – or not.  And it compromises the quality of education, what is learned and how it is learned.  Following the murder of George Floyd and increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a chance of real systemic change.  But new content for long-term cognitive learning, such as ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is only a part of the journey.  While this may change perceptions over time, we need alongside such measures a more immediate means of improving the way people treat each other in our educational institutions.   Pervasive inequality resides in social and emotional learning and in the culture of our schools and colleges.  We must consider and question whether the traditional routes of policy and sanctions achieve the goal of tackling racism in education.

Policy and Punishment

Many Equality/ Diversity/Inclusion Policies espouse ‘zero tolerance’ of racism, but what does this mean in practice?  Often, such policies are a statement of aspiration which is not translated into everyday life.  Like the Equality Act of 2010 they are an impressive starting point – asserting that intersecting characteristics of identity are ‘protected’.  However, this reassurance does not stand up to scrutiny: who protects, and how ?  By the time a matter is in the hands of the Police or a school disciplinary system, it is too late.  For the principle of zero tolerance of racism to work in practice it would need to be understood by everyone in a school community, and ‘owned’ collectively.  In many schools there is an area of confusion in which a traditional system oppresses while claiming not to discriminate.  Many school staff have yet to learn to see racism as a pervasive and accumulative contributor to inequality, interactive with economic and other social structural issues.  Even the best schools still use disciplinary actions which punish without enabling learning.  If the main concern emphasised is the breaking of rules rather than the value of relationships, then staff’s  “taking racism seriously” simply means a detention or a temporary exclusion.  These responses give no opportunity for dialogue, for deeper investigation, for understanding.  Equally problematic is a staff member using their authority to elicit a superficial apology for a harm that is inadequately understood by the person responsible for it. Sometimes the person who has been harmed is viewed as part of the problem, sometimes they are told to ‘shake hands’ and ‘make friends’ with the person who has been hostile to their identity.  This experience can compound the harm.  Alienation of children and young people who experience racism can contribute to their disengagement, reduced life chances and risking their being drawn into what in the USA is called ‘the school to prison pipeline’.

The case for a Restorative approach

Restorative approaches in schools are gaining traction as an effective way of promoting young people’s leadership and teamwork.  Through a variety of avenues, including PHSE and peer mediation, the Restorative model enables citizenship and builds community.   As a response to unwanted behaviour, it can be contrasted with  ‘zero tolerance’ as discussed by Laila Fakoury  in the Ted Talk linked below, where that phrase means ‘no discussion’. 

Restorative Justice can be described as both a process and an outcome achieved through third party support for a safe and voluntary communication.  It does not replace a formal response if the matter is illegal but can run alongside if the harmed person wishes.  This Restorative communication, whether in person or indirectly through the supporter, between the harmed party and the person who caused harm, is for the purpose of repair and recovery.

Moving to the relevance for tackling racism, the Restorative model can be understood as affirming shared humanity and also teaching deep respect for difference.  Rather than generating a win/lose dynamic, third party authority is used to enable each person to bring a part of the picture, facing up to the harm until understanding is reached.  There is the potential for the identity of the person harmed to be appreciated, valued and upheld.  There is also the potential for the person who caused harm to experience the discomfort of personal accountability as a route to change.  It is possible that this is a far more effective way of tackling racism.  

 We are not all starting from the same place

As with cognitive learning, how we extend and deepen our learning about self and others will depend on what we know already.   A child who has become acculturated to racism at home is unlikely to change through being sanctioned with a detention and /or exclusion for racism at school.  Embedded harmful attitudes and beliefs need to be addressed at their root, through exposure and a quality of personal challenge which can only be achieved through an ongoing relationship, not through a wagging finger and yet another punishment. Those will simply drive the attitudes and beliefs underground, to fester and grow.

Further, we do not all express our identities in the same way.  How we do ‘being white’ and ‘being black’ for example, will vary enormously, depending on our backgrounds, political beliefs, experience, and other aspects of our identity, such as emotional capacity and energy, and whether we find it easy or difficult to speak up and speak out.  Courage and confidence for everyday ethics are a matter of practice, and the Restorative model creates opportunities for these.

Belief that things will improve is a huge incentive to report and discuss racism

Research (summarised by Mark Walters, in Hate Crime and Restorative Justice 2014) has repeatedly shown that those harmed by hostility towards their identity want it to stop and want it not to happen to anyone else.  A system which responds with distant disapproval and bureaucracy cannot achieve these outcomes and is a disincentive to reporting, causing a real likelihood of relationships worsening.

In contrast, a culture of Restorative third party support enables the harm to be ‘witnessed’ and directly addressed through a process of creating personal accountability.  This is a way to recognise black people’s experiences of white people who have been blatantly offensive to them, but where there is no forensic ‘evidence’ of explicit racism.  Formal reporting of these experiences would inevitably lead to defensive denial for fear of sanctions and at best a conclusion of insufficient evidence, leaving the harmed person worse off than before.  Consequently, issues go unreported, frustrating the need for change.   If we can develop ways of listening to recognise harms that relate to identity, we can take action about the ‘small’ accumulative experiences of aggression and neglect which contribute to a culture of racism.   That action can be a new dialogue, a challenging conversation, a decreased likelihood of recurrence.

There is always more to learn

This is not an area of development in which anyone gets to feel the job is finished. Rather it’s one in which we must keep listening, to colleagues, children, and young people who experience racism, to learn again and learn more fully what we think we know.  For school and college cultures to become sensitive to racism is a different challenge in rural areas where ignorance and prejudice are often more prevalent.  In 2017, our organisation RJ Working began this dialogue in Cornwall, the most peripheral part of the South West, supported by the national BSBT programme.  In 2018, I travelled to Tirana, Albania to present this work at the bi-annual conference of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ).  I was lucky enough to hear Fania Davis give a keynote address which can be heard here Restorative Justice as a Social Movement (June 2018). Sister of the well-known black American activist Angela Davis, Fania is an enlightening and hopeful writer.  Her book ‘Race and Restorative Justice’ (2019) is an inspirational push for transformative social justice.  Our collective challenge is to translate this to a UK context. 



Deborah Mitchell - 9th October 2020

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