WHETHER it's a dispute with neighbours from hell, bullying in the workplace or a bitter divorce, the gentle art of mediation is increasingly used to resolve it.
Now a further education college is adopting similar tactics. The Royal Forest of Dean College in Gloucestershire is believed to be the first such college in the UK to establish a peer-mediation service.
Trained volunteers - staff and students - will work with disputing parties to help to reconcile differences.
The scheme, part European Union-funded, is being run in partnership with colleges in Norway and Denmark and will be fully operational by early next year. The idea came from Sogn Skole, a catering college in Oslo, where mediation is being used to resolve ethnic differences among Bosnian refugees.
Rachel Sherwood, a 17-year-old student at the Royal Forest of Dean College, volunteered to train as a mediator partly because of her own experience of harassment by bullies outside college. She attended workshops in conflict resolution in Copenhagen in January. Her full training as a peer mediator begins in September.
"I didn't really think of it until we had a tutorial on harassment and bullying, and then they told me about the mediation course. I have always kept bullying to myself. This course helps you bring it out."
Rachel sees her role as a mediator as relevant also to her GNVQ business studies course. "It could become involved because of conflict in the workplace."
Jane Harvey, the college's European co-ordinator, said: "It makes us sound as if we have a real problem with students having a need for mediation, but we don't." Student retention, however, is an issue. "We are aware that students who aren't happy at college, who don't feel comfortable, don't stay with us."
The project is building on anti-bullying and harassment codes laid down by the college in consultation with students two years ago. Mediation UK, an umbrella organisation which accredits mediation services, has been initially training tutors and running workshops at the college to raise awareness of the code.
Following a successful four-day mediation conference in Copenhagen last autumn, a dozen volunteer staff and governors will be trained as mediators next month and will take their first students in September.
Mediators work in pairs, talking separately to the people in each side of a dispute. "If you can get the parties to tell the story from their point of view, you are 90 per cent of the way towards finding a solution," said Jane Harvey.
"It could be good for staff because at the moment all they can do is go through a formal grievance procedure, and that's quite intimidating. Whereas the mediation procedure would be hopefully less formal."
Assistant principal Fran Wade said: "We have given out the message that we want people to tell us if they were unhappy about their social relationships, or any hassle they're getting in college or on the buses on the way to and from college. They are now telling us when they have got issues they feel they cannot resolve themselves."
Tony Billinghurst, of Mediation UK, said other colleges have been showing an interest. "An institution where people are studying together is not so very different in many senses from a place where people are working together," he said.