Classmates in conflict and the resort to reason

PEER MEDIATION: a process for primary schools. By Jerry Tyrrell. Souvenir Press pound;12.99.

If children fall out in school, what should the teacher do? Ignore it? Lay down the law? Wave a metaphorical stick? When Ug and Og quarrelled in their cave, no doubt Ig was on hand to mediate, so "conflict resolution", as it is often termed, must be as old as humanity itself. Yet classroom and playground squabbles between children can still cause mayhem, even in the best run schools. Peer Mediation describes a brave attempt to involve pupils in solutions, rather than place responsibility on teachers alone.

Conflict between children becomes even more tense when the school is in an area where violent disagreement is commonplace among adults. This book describes work in Northern Ireland, so destructive approaches to discord are not unknown to the children who feature in it. The author, Jerry Tyrrell, died just before finishing the text, but fortunately his colleague, Seamus Farrell, was able to complete it.

Many teachers will be familiar with such processes as "circle time", when they can talk through problems of behaviour and relationships in relative peace, away from the time, and often from the location, of confrontation. Peer mediation is a similar attempt to diffuse tensions, but the running is made by fellow pupils.

The modern version of it is traced through three or four decades to the war in Vietnam and anxiety about nuclear combat between the superpowers of East and West. In such strained circumstances it seemed right to equip the next generation with alternatives to the gun. Early work in the United States is reported here, as well as forms of it in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The book is clearly laid out for readers who have no idea about what is involved. Whole chapters describe in detail what peer mediation is, and how pupils can be trained through a series of seven workshops. Case studies fill out the picture for those who find concrete examples helpful.

Children clearly do need preparation for their interventionist role. In the version described here, pairs of mediators, following a set of agreed steps, work with two children who have fallen out. The conflicts may be familiar to old hands ("You laughed at my shoes." "Well you called me Dumbo") but their resolution does not always come naturally to the young. Rules such as "No put-downs", "It's OK to make mistakes", "Keep good secrets" (confidentiality) and "One person speaking at a time" may be self-evident to seasoned professionals, but they need to be rediscovered by each generation of children.

All of this is of particular importance in a tinder box such as Northern Ireland. It was encouraging that some children who had been involved in conflict became successful mediators with others. It may yet take a generation or two, but resorting to reason rather than violence could be a big step towards lasting peace.

I have only two significant reservations about what is described in this book. Although I have never tried peer mediation in the highly organised form outlined here, I wonder if such detailed scrutiny of conflict may simply dignify it too much. Circle time can become toe-curlingly self-indulgent, especially if piety and smugness override humour and common sense. It is important to draw the heat out of tension, but pirouetting around it can easily be overdone.

I also wonder if the emphasis on "mediation" may distract from the more important notion of "prevention". It is the difference between firewatch and firefighting: ignore the sparks and the tinder, and the big red engines have to be wheeled out. Peer mediation should be preventive, alerting pupils to danger signals for future reference, so any school that has large amounts of it should ask if it really is a successful programme. The research evidence on its effectiveness quoted in the book is often more anecdotal than rigorous. In the 19th century, caning was supposed to be the answer to anti-social behaviour, yet the same pupils were being caned every day.

Nonetheless, this book offers a detailed account of a worthwhile attempt to deal with problems in a positive manner, rather than resort automatically to punitive sanctions that may not always be appropriate. Although the subtitle suggests it is for primary schools, a modified version of what is described could certainly be of interest to secondary teachers, especially in the year when citizenship becomes a required subject.

Ted Wragg Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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