Minor disagreements in the playground can quickly escalate into major incidents without early intervention. But 'peer mediation' may help to calm tempers, writes Matthew Brown.
Headteacher Charlie Clare can clearly remember the day he knew his school's new approach to bad behaviour was working. He arrived one morning to find a 10-year-old boy and parent arguing bitterly by the school gates. "The child was in quite a state," says the head of the 300-pupil Geoffrey Field junior school in Reading, Berkshire. "So I took him inside to talk to him." Then the phone rang and the child was left standing outside his office.
"There was another pupil there, someone who's always in trouble," he says. "He started asking the boy what was wrong, listening to his problems and suggesting ways to resolve them. It was all the things I would have said myself. In the end the boy came in and said, 'I don't need to talk to you now, I've sorted it out.' And off he went."
Geoffrey Field introduced peer mediation - pupils helping each other with their problems - about four years ago. Now the school has 16 peer mediators - two boys and two girls elected from each year group - who are trained in mediation and conflict management skills, what the professionals call "active listening".
They are on duty every break and lunch time in their emerald green jackets and logos, available for their peers to turn to when they get into an argument that can't be resolved. The mediators take them aside, listen to their views, and help their fellow pupils come up with solutions.
"When it was first suggested to me I was sceptical," says Mr Clare. "I thought the idea of children helping each other solve their problems would be a bridge too far. But it hasn't been; they are very good at it."
Last year these pupils handled 55 mediations, mostly cases of what the school's citizenship teacher, Christiann Boulton, calls "minor fallings-out" and "friendship conflicts". More serious disputes are still dealt with by staff, she says, "although the ultimate aim is for all the children to pick up these skills as they come into contact with the mediators".
The skills these children need were introduced to the school by Belinda Hopkins, director of an organisation called Transforming Conflict, "a centre for restorative justice in education in the Thames Valley".
For Ms Hopkins, peer mediation is only one element of a whole approach to resolving conflict that, she believes, could transform how schools - and society - deal with bad behaviour. For the past six years she's been running courses at Reading University, and visiting schools throughout the Thames Valley area, teaching PGCE students, teachers and lunch-time controllers the principles of restorative justice so they can begin to resolve disciplinary problems without resorting to exclusions or the police.
"Things like mediation projects are tools, but they are not covered by most teacher training courses," she says. "Underlying them is a set of values and principles based on mutual respect, an awareness of each other's needs. It's about schools putting relationships at the heart of whatever they do." It may sound a bit woolly, but, she says, it works.
Most pupils at Drayton secondary school in Banbury, north Oxfordshire, come from the Bretch Hill estate. It's a neighbourhood, according to headteacher Graham Robb, with "the classic mix of problems that bring about low self-esteem and lack of interest in education: high levels of violence and teenage pregnancy, huge social deprivation". The school is in special measures; only 15 per cent of GCSE pupils got A* to C grades last year.
And yet restorative justice is working so well at Drayton, and other schools in the area, that local police have reduced the number of officers on the Bretch Hill estate. In fact, it was a Thames Valley police schools and youth officer, Sergeant Dick Auger, who introduced the ideas to Drayton 18 months ago. In particular, he suggested "restorative conferences" to deal with misbehaviour, including serious incidents such as physical and verbal abuse.
These are carefully scripted meetings between offenders, victims and their parents, which allow both sides to talk about what happened and what they think should be done to put it right. The process relies on the same principles as mediation: talking things through, listening and coming to a shared understanding of the way forward.
"We try to get young people to accept responsibility for what they've done and to put it right, so there's a real resolution," says Mr Auger. Graham Robb cites one case in which a pupil racially abused a member of staff. "In the past that would have meant an automatic exclusion, but we used restorative justice and it worked brilliantly," he says. "In the meeting the boy's mother had a huge impact - she said she didn't know how she was going to explain to her Asian workmates why she'd been at the school. He saw the effect of his actions and his apology really came from the heart. He hasn't been in trouble since."
Mr Auger knows that such methods may seem a soft option, a way for savvy youths to avoid punishment for anti-social or even criminal behaviour, but both he and Graham Robb are optimistic.
"I'm not into pink and fluffy policing," says Dick Auger, a veteran of 17 years with tactical firearms and riot squads. "If people need locking up they need locking up, and we should have places to do that. But this gives us a tool to resolve situations without resort to the courts.
"The current system is negative and sterile. The offender hides behind a magistrate or solicitor and the victim rarely even knows what happens. This way they both get a voice."
Graham Robb says the restorative conferences are tough. "There's no hiding place for the offender, because they have to face the consequences of what they've done. Now, when I look at individual cases and see the effect it's had on some of these tough youngsters, it's amazing."
Conferences are not an easy option for the school either. They take a long time to set up, and require a lot of careful negotiation with the victim and both sets of parents. And they don't always work. "Sometimes the offence is too severe, or it's just not an appropriate method for that student. Sometimes the families don't want to do it," says Graham Robb.
But evidence suggests they are likely to have a positive outcome. Robin Tinker manages a Home Office-funded project looking at the effect of restorative conferences in six schools in Nottingham. Of 25 recorded last year, all but one led to a positive resolution, and 97 per cent of the pupils involved said they were satisfied with the outcome. "It works because it separates the crime from the person," says Mr Tinker. "Unlike traditional forms of discipline, it's not saying you are a bad person."
Graham Robb says it also fits current trends in the national curriculum, especially in citizenship."I am trying to drive a school development process here based on human rights and responsibilities. Restorative justice hits that right in the bull's-eye."
Nevertheless, it seems slightly at odds with Home Secretary Jack Straw's tough approach to youth justice. Dick Auger says he senses "a lot of movement in government circles. You've got to split their rhetoric from what's going on underneath. They know if we do this with young kids, it will save money in the future and, we hope, reduce crime and improve education standards. Restorative justice could be the next big thing from government."
Which would certainly make Belinda Hopkins happy. "My dream is to have an impact on policy," she says. "My vision is for every child to learn the skills of conflict management, mediation and negotiation. To me it's about democracy in the classroom - living it, not being taught about it."
Transforming Conflict, tel: 0118 933 1520
* MAGIC CIRCLE
In "healing circles" - or "circle time" - structured activities help people discuss an issue in a non-judgmental and non-threatening way. Often an object is passed around; whoever is holding it speaks, without interruption, so everyone has an equal chance to be involved.
"Circle time is the seedbed of the kind of skills you need if you're going to develop a restorative approach to justice," says Belinda Hopkins of Transforming Conflict. "It develops empathy and listening skills."
Ms Hopkins, a former modern languages teacher, has introduced circle time to schools in and around Reading and finds it a powerful tool for staff development, as well as a useful classroom practice. "It works because it gives the kids a space to be themselves and breaks up cliques," she says. Charlie Clare says that if Geoffrey Field didn't use circle time, "it would have been very difficult to develop the peer mediation group. The two go together." Some of the peer mediators now lead circle time sessions themselves.
At Neithrop infants in Banbury, circle time is central to the school's nurturing programme, Family Links. With half the school's pupils on the special needs register and a quarter classified as having emotional and behavioural difficulties, the programme, introduced in January this year, has already helped children to become more independent.
"They love it," says headteacher Maggie Twydell. "It gives the children a space to talk about their emotions and a vocabulary to discuss their problems."
She cites the case of a Year 2 boy who was aggressive and often in trouble at lunch time. Discussing it at circle time helped him see how it affected other children, and they suggested solutions, such as joining a lunch-time club.
"It's about giving them personal power," says Ms Twydell. "There are still sanctions for more serious misbehaviour, of course. But children who get into trouble are starting to be able to talk about their situations and mediate their difficulties themselves."