By Megan Pound, MRes in Education, University of Portsmouth
Portsmouth considers itself a ‘restorative city’ so I recently attended training regarding its use of the restorative framework and its suggested benefits (Portsmouth Safeguarding Children Partnership, 2020) available to relevant professionals such as teachers, refuge workers and social workers. My specialism is the use of co-production in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of vulnerable children and families, therefore I approached this training hoping to learn how the two strategies could simultaneously achieve better outcomes.
Co-production captures the voice of the participant whilst also involving them in the wider research process; usually promoting equality between contributors and often with regards to improving service provision. When working with vulnerable individuals, it is likely that ‘difficult conversations’ will arise, due to the sensitive nature of the discussion points, potentially preventing successful interactions. Although, an approach such as restorative practice which focuses on engagement, respectful language and conflict resolution may be a solution to this heightened risk of conflict. Furthermore, restorative practices are proactive as opposed to reactive, allowing individuals to use reflection to learn from and build upon previous, less successful interactions.
The International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) explain that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (Wachtel & McCold, 2004). Suggesting that to best access unheard voices, we must work alongside minority groups rather than imposing pre-existing ideas on them. The IIRP also produced the ‘Social Discipline Window’ which says that the most effective discursive approach relies on an equal balance of support and control; though this might be better described as ‘challenge’ for the individual. Through this, they suggest that mutual learning and change can take place, thus highlighting a correlation between restorative practices and co-production.
Although, particularly when safety is in question, higher elements of support may be essential, with room to develop the balance of independence over time. The ‘challenge’ element remains vital in order to promote a sense of autonomy and empowerment, through inclusive yet empathetic guidance. If an individual becomes reliant on higher levels of support, not only can this remove independence but also cause feelings of disempowerment and lack of motivation to help themselves in the future. Perhaps through co-production though, where participants are equally responsible, they can gain confidence, self-esteem and a better sense of inclusion; especially when their voice is not only considered but evidently acted upon.
The voice of the individual
Capturing the voice of the individual is being deemed increasingly essential for better service provision, due to the deeper insights that lived experiences can provide to multi-agency practitioners. Whilst there are a range of approaches to co-production, it is generally accepted that not only does it allow for narratives to be heard, but also includes participants in the wider research process; striving for more informed and sustainable outcomes. It could therefore be concluded, that an approach such as Restorative Practice aligns with these desired outcomes, achieving solutions which are agreeable for all involved; service users and providers alike.
Listening to an individual perception may be important to maintain worthwhile, progressive conversations but it is essential that this does not become a tokenistic activity without evidence of evolution. Restorative practice takes this idea a step further than listening to a single voice, instead encouraging those involved to consider how events may also impact others, promoting empathy at the heart of this process. Whilst having your story heard can be highly empowering, it is suggested that through hearing multiple perceptions, not only can a bigger picture be drawn but also a pathway to more informed change in the future. Moreover, the consideration of others alone could enable more encompassing changes to be made and allow for familiar, yet potentially outdated, procedures to be respectfully challenged and adapted for the better.
A further element of restorative practice is ‘fair process’, which highlights that if individuals are treated fairly, they are more likely to co-operate with the process, regardless of the extent that they may benefit from the outcome. This too relates to co-production where the power balance struggle can become problematic, if mutually respectful collaboration is not implemented by all involved; for example, practitioners may deem their qualifications in a higher standing than narratives of lived experience and vice versa for participants.
Nonetheless, a sense of ‘fairness’ will likely foster improved mental health and wellbeing for all, if they feel included and valued for their personal inputs. This emphasis on equally respectful interactions, regardless of factors such as academic success, cultural background or economic standing, could also allow for higher-quality learning to take place. By removing hierarchical authority figures in favour of a more relational approach, more fruitful outcomes could be achieved, across a range of settings, with participants feeling more able to share honestly and confidently within a physically and emotionally safe environment.
To conclude, there are clear links between co-production and restorative practice which suggest that they could positively impact on the success of one another. They are both approaches which must be implemented conscientiously and empathetically, especially when working with vulnerable individuals. Likewise, in a city such as Portsmouth, where hearing the voice of the individual is often noted as being of high importance, it is fitting that respectful, supportive communication would facilitate this more effectively.
Through implementing the reflective approach of restorative practice alongside the inclusive collaboration of co-production, it seems that more meaningful connections could be fostered, allowing for crucial interventions and support systems to be quality assured and enhanced. Though the question still remains, if hearing the individual’s voice continues to be highly promoted as a worthwhile concept, why is this seldom seen in practice?