Conflict is an inevitable part of human nature and this is never more clearly seen than in a school. Be it two children squabbling in the back of a classroom or a frustrated thump from a distraught child in the playground, conflict is something that all teachers have to respond to on a daily basis.
How they do this is the subject of much debate, but recent arguments have centred on a supportive rather than disciplinary approach. In his 2009 report for the Department for Education, Learning Behaviour: lessons learned, Sir Alan Steer argues that a "purely punitive approach is immoral, damaging to society and doomed to failure". He believes that an approach which seeks only to identify blame and punish accordingly can be ineffectual as well as damaging.
Last month in TESS, Dr Louise Porter advocated a teacher-led approach adhering to this supportive mantra ("What to do when the gloves come off", Professional, 23 August). But peer mediation is an alternative that is increasingly being touted as best practice. Here, peer-on-peer approaches are used to deliver restorative justice. Instead of searching for who hit whom first, or who said what, a neutral third party is brought in to help those fighting to reach a settlement. That third party is a fellow student, either from the same year or an older age group.
Both the students who were fighting and the mediator will retreat to a classroom that has been set aside for the purpose. The students at odds with each other will discuss their actions and the repercussions while the other child - who has been trained in basic listening, problem-solving and empathy skills - mediates the dispute.
CRESST, an organisation that works within schools to deliver conflict resolution education programmes, says: "Peer mediation has a powerful impact in the school. By giving both `sides' a chance to express themselves, and remaining neutral, peer mediators provide a safe space for their fellow students to find resolution."
Ellis Brooks, training and development manager at CRESST, says: "The mediators themselves, who are not necessarily your school's academic high- flyers, gain a sense of responsibility from volunteering their time and a set of invaluable life skills. it might take more of a journey, a bit more empathy, but it will be much more durable than a `sorry' extracted under duress by a time-poor teacher or midday supervisor."
The advantage of peer mediation is therefore not only that it helps to break down conflict in schools, but in teaching children to deal with disputes themselves it conveys long-term benefits.
Hilary Cremin, a senior lecturer in the University of Cambridge's education faculty, conducted a case study of a primary school in Birmingham where students were trained as peer mediators and had a rota where they committed to being in a classroom at lunchtime. During the lunch breaks, other children would come to the room with their disputes and the mediator would remain neutral, listen and help to resolve the conflict. Cremin argued that the positive outcomes for the school went beyond the resolution of the peer disputes, helping the students to develop an internalised moral code and set of behavioural norms.
However, other academic studies have not been as positive. A Cambridge Journal of Education article from 2008 argues that peer mediation tends to lead to individualistic, pathological explanations and often fails to address issues such as systemic racism and sexism. Some argue that complex group dynamics are overlooked if conflict is dealt with on an individualised, case-by-case basis.
Another criticism is the question of sustainability. In a conference paper, Peta Blood and Margaret Thorsborne, who both work in the restorative justice arena, point out that without ongoing support from the whole school, these programmes often lose their effectiveness or cease altogether.
So, for the time being, it is difficult to gauge the overall effectiveness of peer mediation. Yet, at schools willing to invest the time and effort to develop this approach in a sustainable and non-discriminatory way, students have the potential to learn to manage their own disputes and see them as positive learning experiences. That, surely, is enough to tempt schools to give peer mediation a try, even though there is yet to be conclusive proof of its success.
Rebecca Tron is currently studying for a master's in education psychology at the University of Cambridge
Blood, P and Thorsborne, M (2005) "The challenge of culture change: embedding restorative practice in schools" presented at the Sixth International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment.
Cremin, H (2007) Peer Mediation: citizenship and social inclusion revisited (Open University Press).
McCluskey, G, Lloyd, G, Stead, J et al (2008) "I was dead restorative today: from restorative justice to restorative approaches in school", Cambridge Journal of Education, 238: 199-217.
Every teacher faces the need to resolve conflict, but there is much debate over the best way to go about it.
One strand of current research is to use peer mediation, where trained students assist other children to find solutions to conflict.
Some argue that this approach is not only unsustainable but also risks issues such as sexism and racism being unaddressed.
However, supporters claim that peer mediation improves conflict resolution and has long-term benefits for students' moral education.