Mediation - a gentler way to deal with disputes

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Over recent weeks, there has been a rising tide of concern about disputes in education that lead to serious legal proceedings. The extraordinary financial implications outlined in "The cost of conflict" (TES, March 9) are alarming but not surprising. Alongside the professional concern shown by schools, local education authorities and professional associations, we cannot ignore the "compensation culture" that is becoming endemic in our society.

Television ads tell parents of the right to compensation if a child is injured in the playground, but do not inform viewers about two other essential ingredients in cases that go through the full legal process.

First, the legal firm will certainly be operating on a "no win, no fee" basis. This means that they only take on selected cases and, when they win, they will take a very large slice.

Second, most cases that get dragged through the various legal systems have another "cost" - time and the emotional strain of all involved.

"Presumed guilty" (Friday, February 16) illustrates this aspect of legal costs very well. It also reminds everyone that legal proceedings are not only dealt with in a court of law. The education world has created a plethora of quasi-legal adjudication systems to resolve disputes. These often work alongside existing national bodies which also have animpact on education. Examples include the employment (previously industrial) tribunal; the SEN tribunal; grievance procedures; complaints procedures; governors' appeal panel. If anyone thinks these are not like full legal proceedings, think again.

Furthermore, threshold payment and performance management are about to create another set of "appeal" procedures that will be, at best, bureaucratic and, at worst, another emotionally draining and expensive system.

There is another way. At the National Mediation Centre we have had considerable experience over the past six years in dealing with disputes in a more constructive manner. Parties can air their grievances and work out a solution acceptable to both. It's not about winning or losing, but about moving on and finding ways to do that.

Although this is not simple, mediation does offer a sensible alternative to those who wish to resolve problems quickly, and without huge expense.

If mediation is used early in disputes, it prevents parties becoming entrenched, saving time and energy. But, most importantly, it allows those involved in education to get on with the important issues of teaching and improving the education and opportunities of young people.

Lana Courtney, chief executive, the National Mediation Centre, 23 St James Gardens, Swansea SA1 6DY

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