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Playground peace process

There was no accord to avoid turmoil during Northern Ireland's marching season; violence was used to solve political differences; and after weeks of multi-party talks there are still no serious discussions. A lot of adults could do with help from some highly skilled primary pupils.

Derry was the centre of some of the worst rioting that followed the flare-up over the Orange march in Portadown, but it is also a city where young people are learning better ways to resolve conflict.

A group of 11-year-olds showed how it can be done when they carried out a role-play about sorting out a dispute without the help of adults. Two aggrieved children told their versions of a disagreement. The young mediators showed impressive skills, listening to the combatants' stories, repeating back and checking their versions, seeking solutions acceptable to both sides and enforcing the ground-rules: no interrupting, no name-calling, no blaming others.

In their own primary schools they do it for real. If a row breaks out, the children do not seek out a teacher but specially trained friends, who try to get to the roots of the conflict. Mediation is not a substitute for the schools' discipline policies and the training for young trouble-shooters stresses that they cannot deal with serious offences; nor can they mediate successfully if one party to the dispute persists in telling untruths.

Peer Mediation in Primary Schools was a pilot scheme by the Quaker Peace Education Project at the University of Ulster's Centre for the Study of Conflict. It has proved so promising that it is being expanded in The EMU (education for mutual understanding) Promoting School, funded by the Department of Education, the Joseph Rowntree Trust and others.

As well as being used in two Derry primary schools, the initiative is being promoted in Ballysally, in a Loyalist part of Coleraine, and St Joseph's in the Nationalist village of Ederny in Fermanagh. A secondary school is also involved for the first time.

"The thing that has been missing among our political leaders is empathy, " commented Jerry Tyrrell, one of the project organisers. "They take up positions. It is as though people are talking about different things.

"It is important as a mediator to be able to articulate both sides of a disagreement so that people know their case has been heard. In Northern Ireland recently, mediation has not got a look in; it has been walked over and might has been right. If we can teach young people that both sides have a valid point of view that has to be accommodated, we will have changed a lot."

Anne Murray, principal of Oakgrove Integrated Primary, one of the schools involved, was so impressed by the initiative that she now chairs the group sponsoring it. "I think that in the context of Northern Ireland, mediation is particularly important. We love a good argument; we are very skilled at it and we are skilled at fighting with one another. Where we are not so skilled is around that whole area of resolving conflict in a different way. And unless we start to give our young people those skills then it is not going to filter through to the adult population."

The schools found that the aims of promoting affirmation, co-operation and communication helped deliver much of the EMU cross-curricular theme, and provided many other benefits such as improved self-esteem and team-working among pupils.

"When I saw my P7 (10 to 11-year-old) children giving presentations to adults, I realised that no matter if they never solved a problem in the playground, they had grown so much and learned so much and had acquired so many personal skills that it was worth it," said Anne Murray.

Gerald Hartop, the P7 teacher responsible for the project in the Model Primary, was initially sceptical of the idea, but became so convinced that he is now working full-time promoting it in other schools.

He feared chaos if he lost control, but could see possible benefits in helping pupils overcome the negative effect of being branded failures by the 11-plus. He realised when investigating wheels in science that the co-operating groups were doing better, and pupils themselves suggested that the mediation rules would be useful in workshops. "Pupils also began to tell me when I was not treating them with the respect they ought to have. All teachers use put-downs on occasion, but the children were quick to point out that if they should not do it, I should not do it either."

One of the weaknesses of the project was that it did not involve lunchtime supervisors early enough. They too became enthusiastic and perceptive converts. "You want to get the ones who are always in conflict. Mediation isn't a thing about brains; anybody can do it if they are shown how," said Mia Whoriskey, supervisor at Oakgrove. "In many ways the ones in conflict can influence everything that is going on in the playground. I'd pick key ones. Pick the leader of a group that is always together and always causing problems. Children in conflict are always looking for attention - give them attention" Emily Brown, superviser at the Model, agreed: "They need to be given responsibility. They feel very important when they are doing something like this, and valued, and that is what they need."

John Lampen, former headmaster of Shotton Hall, a school for children with severe behaviour problems, helped with training in the project. "I believe strongly in the value of peer mediation as an addition, and often an alternative, to traditional school methods of handling children's conflicts.

"I also believe that peace will not take root in Northern Ireland until there is something like a culture of conflict resolution, in which ideas of negotiation, bargaining, accommodation and restitution take the place of confrontational political attitudes - and one way of developing this must surely be in the education of young people," he said.

Many of the children have grown into the role so successfully that they could well help former Senator George Mitchell in his task of chairing the unruly politicians at the peace talks.

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