Blessed are the peacemakers

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh looks at a peer mediation project that has had great success in resolving conflict between children. Trusting children to solve their own problems will reduce bullying and improve relationships - that is the belief being put into action at a primary school in Dudley, West Midlands.

Jesson's CE primary school was one of five winners of this year's TES Community Action by Schools Award. Its Peacemakers project uses "peer group mediation", a technique used in a range of adult and youth communities around the world to help people settle their own disputes with the aid of elected mediators.

Typically, in peer group mediation, what happens is something like this: two children have a quarrel. There is no violence, but there are unhappiness and tears - perhaps a sleepless night. They decide (and it must be their decision) to approach their teacher and ask for the help of mediators.

Their teacher refers to the colleague who runs the mediation programme, and she allocates two peer group mediators from a rota. All four pupils - two disputants, two mediators - repair to a private room and go through a careful stage-by-stage process which involves the mediators in listening to the disputants, identifying their feelings and needs, and their suggested options for progress and then agreeing on a course of action.

The culmination comes when the disputants sign a short contract and shake hands. The completed contract form is kept by the teacher in charge of the programme, and is entirely confidential to her.

All this, of course, calls up a lot of questions, the most important one being how well the pupil mediators can handle the task.

One answer is, as Jesson's staff are quick to point out, that although not all pupils will become mediators, no-one should underestimate the ability of children to take on quite sophisticated counselling skills.

The pupils' seriousness of purpose has been impressive throughout. Charles Hilken, the Jesson's teacher who originally introduced the programme, says he was "amazed at how good was their theoretical grasp of it all."

The second answer lies in the detailed preparation - for pupils, parents and teachers - that went into the Peacemakers project. Charles Hilken first heard of peer group mediation, which is used in a number of schools and other communities here and in the United States, through a personal contact with the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Programme. Encouraged by new head Lucy Griffiths, who arrived at Jesson's early in 1993, he embarked in September of that year on a term of secondment one day a week to learn about from the peace education programme.

Then came the task of introducing it to staff, some of whom were, unsurprisingly, doubtful. Gradually, though, according to Charles Hilken, they were won over, albeit to varying degrees. "It was an upward curve all the way through the year, and by the end of the summer term it had become magic. "

In January 1994, training of the pupils started with one year group. Year 4 was chosen on the grounds that although they were only one year into junior school, they had three years still to go. First there was a 20-hour course of co-operative team games, discussion and role play for all 75 pupils, spread over two afternoons a week. The next task was for the pupils to elect 15 mediators. Year 4 teacher Ann Stone, by now in charge of the programme, admits to being "pleased and surprised by how sensibly they chose the mediators on the basis of how well they could do the job."

Training with the mediators continued, and included role-playing of typical disputes. Gradually, genuine disputes were introduced to them. This was done cautiously, and even now some mediators have not yet worked on a dispute.

The Peacemakers project is still in its early stages at Jesson's, and is being continuously updated and changed in the light of experience. Something the teachers have come to terms with is the speed - a matter of minutes sometimes - with which children can go through the mediation process. Experience with similar programmes in the United States, Charles Hilken says, has shown that "children have the ability to compress things down to essentials in a way that would be unsatisfactory to adults."

At the moment, mediations are not all that frequent, perhaps one or two a week. Nevertheless, staff notice a real difference in attitudes which, Charles Hilken says, is a boost to the programme's development. "The staff feel that the year group is better behaved this year, and that's a selling point. "

Mediation is not suitable for those serious or violent incidents which are still firmly in teacher territory. The expectation, though, is that by tackling low-level disputes, it will, in the long term, improve relationships and act as an anti-violence, anti-bullying strategy.

Not least of its attractions is that it provides a way by which time can be given to the happenings which, though they may seem small beer to an adult, are important to the children involved. It also provides an alternative to the busy teacher's quick fix which, Wendy Jones, a Year 5 teacher, points out, tends to be "a punishment or a penalty". This way, she says, "they're not punishing each other, they're seeking a reconciliation."

Peacemakers obviously has a range of complexities which call for careful handling, and which defy quick explanation. Wendy Jones, for example, cautions against trying to do a project like this on the cheap: "It's got to be funded, and staff have got to be released." Jesson's staff, in fact, have taken a full school year to ensure that the philosophy is accepted into the culture of the school. According to Charles Hilken, similar initiatives have often failed as a result of being "tacked on". He says: "You'd get a team of two coming from outside in to do a programme. But you can't do it in a vacuum."

Staff relationships have been affected by the project, Charles Hilken says: "As you go out to the playground with a colleague, the children can see quite clearly if you don't get on together." For their part, the pupil mediators seem remarkably confident with their task and with the potential of Peacemakers.

It was nine-year-old Amandeep Kaur who took me through the stages of the mediation process, being careful to explain the necessity "to ask the disputants about their feelings and needs". Kayleigh Robinson, also nine, explained to me how the principles were to do with "co-operation, affirmation and communication" - and she knew quite well that "affirmation means making someone feel sure of themselves."

Parents have been kept in the picture all through, and though there were some doubts, they have become supportive. Lucy Griffiths explains that the parents of children who have been directly affected "are very positive."

The plan now is to extend the programme to other year groups. The pace will still be steady, however - the present Year 4 will embark on their 20-hour course next March, after groundwork with parents and staff.

Peacemakers starts from the assumption that children can be trusted, that they can make decisions, and that they will respond positively to being accepted and valued. In the primary sector particularly, there is a now heartening growth of school projects - Circle Time, school councils and the more thoughtful anti-bullying programmes - which have the same philosophical grounding, and aim to make relationships less confrontational and competitive.

Neither is it just a recycling of the vague "love-in" culture of earlier times. Today's climate calls for planning and management, and Jesson's is showing that if you use time and resources effectively, it is possible to make fundamental changes to the culture of playground and classroom.

Jesson's plans a national conference on peer group mediation early in 1995. For details contact Jesson's CE Primary School, School Street, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 2AQ.

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