Already common practice at schools in former war zones, conflict resolution classes can teach children the skills to deal with potentially violent situations closer to home, writes Douglas Blane
Latecomers strolling up the drive squeal and dash for cover as an unseasonable hailstorm lashes the Community Centre at Port Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde.
Cold, wet and gasping for air, they push through the doors into a hall that is surprisingly hushed and tranquil, despite containing 60 damp primary schoolchildren.
But then the organisers of this event are particularly adept at bringing peace to fraught situations, which is why they arerunning a series of conferences to help children avoid violence by learning conflict resolution techniques.
We all grow attached to behaviour patterns that feel comfortable but, like scruffy old jackets, they often neither look good nor get the job done. Social skills are most easily learnt when young, but usually most of us acquire only a limited range of responses to provocation - often just fear and aggression.
"But aggression makes the other person want to retaliate," explains Family Mediation Service's Maureen Lynch. "And if they sense fear, they feel they can win, so they want to keep the argument going. Both these types of response make it more likely that the situation will escalate."
Conflict resolution skills are currently being taught in schools in former war-zones and trouble spots around the world, but Inverclyde is one of the first local authorities in Scotland to embrace this philosophy with enthusiasm.
Nobody would describe Inverclyde as a war-zone, "but it is an area with quite a lot of deprivation and social problems," says education adviser Margaret Robertson.
"The main industry used to be shipbuilding, but most of the shipyards have gone now, so there's high unemployment and also a fair bit of religious friction. All of our schools - primary and secondary, Catholic and non-denominational - are taking part.
"We ran a conference for secondary schools in September last year and now we're running a series of three conferences for primary school pupils. It's been hard work, but I think it's a very worthwhile project."
The project has been organised jointly by Inverclyde education department, ecumenical group Inverclyde Churches Together, and Family Mediation Scotland, which usually works with divorcing parents.
"The aim of the project is to take the concept of mediation into the schoolroom, the playground, and then the wider community," says Family Mediation's Gay Cox.
"It's about teaching the adults of the future how to deal with conflict. This is a pilot project, but young people are using the skills successfully, so it would be nice to think that one day the project might go country-wide."
The unusual collaboration between professionals from education, mediation and religious backgrounds began when Margaret Foggie, chairwoman of the Inverclyde family contact centre, was sitting on the hard seats at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and became struck by a few lines in a report about peaceful schools.
She followed it up, read a book about a similar project run by the Quakers in Belfast, and discovered that many local schools had already put in place bits of the programme.
"But the children weren't necessarily all learning the same vocabulary," she says, "so when kids from different schools got together, one of them might not realise the other was trying to make peace. Also, the activities did not involve other schools or the whole community."
She approached Maureen Lynch of the Family Mediation Service in Edinburgh, and discovered she knew a lot about conflict resolution and had been invited by the education department to speak to teachers in Inverclyde.
The two of them then went to Inverclyde Churches Together, to make sure the project would be ecumenical and talked to their chairman George Hart, after which the project "just took off".
Together they devised a four-step initiative: first, they held a secondary schools conference last September; now they are holding a series of conferences for primary school children; the next phase will be a peaceful school operating as a pilot in several primaries, with staff and pupils trained as mediators - "we're keen to demonstrate to headteachers how that will work," says George Hart; and finally the aim is to take conflict resolution out to the wider community.
An unusual but very effective aspect of the project is that secondary school volunteers have been recruited and trained to run workshops for younger children, an idea suggested by the Inverclyde education department.
Pupil Gerard Gordon of Notre Dame High School, slightly hoarse from his efforts, says: "I really enjoyed that and I think the kids learned a lot - in the round-up session they were all giving back the things I'd been trying to communicate."
Fellow pupil Alison Jannetts also enjoyed working with the younger children. "The kids were quite nervous to start with and wouldn't talk much," she says, "but once they got going they were great. It's the first time I've done anything like that."
The materials for the workshops were prepared by Family Mediation's Maureen Lynch, who also provided training for the older children and ran sessions during the day for the teachers.
"The older kids were wonderful," she says. "The activities were designed to give the primary children a chance to try out different ways to respond to provocation.
"Solving things physically sometimes seems a legitimate way of addressing problems for younger kids, but I think at this age - 10 or 11 - it's worth beginning to explore the consequences of a physical response. Where does it lead? How does your release of energy or aggression impact on somebody else?
"We're trying to get the children to take a step back from what they would normally do, and we're giving them a vocabulary and a framework to talk about conflict resolution.
"Dealing with provocation by trying to sort out the problem is often harder than responding with fear or aggression. But it almost always leads to a better result."
For further information about conflict resolution in schools: Family Mediation Service, tel: 0131 220 1610. George Hart, UNICEF education officer, can be contacted on 01475 799948. A conflict resolution schools project based at the University of Florida has a website at http:www.coe.ufl.eduCRPMCRPMhome.html. A book by Jerry Tyrrell, 'Peer Mediation in Primary Schools', is published by University of Ulster, 1995.
'GIVE ME 50P OR I'LL PUNCH YOU'
"Your sister is a fat cow."
"Give me 50p or I'll punch you."
"Where did you get those trainers - Poundstretchers?" This sort of provocation, and worse, is an integral part of everyday life for most schoolchildren. Their response to it largely determines how the situation will develop, whether the tension will dissipate or escalate to violence.
Young George's first stab at conflict resolution - "I'll punch you first" - shows he still has some way to go, whereas Leanne is already further down the road to peaceful resolution. "Yes maybe she is a bit overweight, but I think it suits her."
During the workshops, the children take turns to deliver insults and be on the receiving end of them. They think about how different responses feel and which ones seem most effective. They are surprisingly focused.
A similar approach is producing positive results around the world. In Rwanda, youngsters are learning about co-operation and conflict resolution through cultural and recreational activities.
In Sri Lanka, conflict resolution is an important part of the schoolcurriculum.
In Liberia, Mozambique, Croatia, Egypt, Sudan and Northern Ireland, peace is the subject of art, music, dance, theatre, storytelling, poetry, sports events and science projects.
Former headteacher and UNICEF's educational officer George Hart says: "It's interesting that relief agencies like ours have all turned their attention to conflict resolution. They found it wasn't enough just to bung in tonnes of food."
"I think it's very hopeful that the kind of strategies developed in Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Rwanda can come back to help solve the problems in our owncommunities.
"It might be simple exercises like the kids were doing today, but it's part of an acceptance that wehave to manage conflict better. There probably will always be conflicts between people, but we have to learn to resolve them without using violence."