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Try to see it my way, only time will tell

Young people are willing to give peer mediation a go - if adults are prepared to back them up, says Richard Hendry

Abbie and Beth have fallen out, big time. Having been pals for a while, they are now experiencing and demonstrating conflict in ways that are apparent and disturbing. Abbie approaches the school's peer mediators for help.

First the mediators take time to listen to Abbie's concerns and to decide if mediation is appropriate. With Abbie's agreement, they approach Beth and explain that there is a problem and that mediation may be a useful way to sort it out. Beth puts her side of the story and then, if they both agree, they all work together.

This is a generalised but realistic scenario based on observed practice in Scottish schools. The mediators are modelling behaviours that include empathy, taking personal responsibility and respect for other views. How easily can young people learn to relate in these ways?

The evidence to support the effectiveness of peer mediation has been growing in a number of countries for more than 20 years. In Scotland, the evidence is limited, principally through lack of opportunity. But this situation is changing. Around 50 schools operate peer mediation schemes, and interest is growing rapidly. Peer mediation is, however, neither panacea nor quick fix.

In broad terms, when addressing the issue of conflict among their pupils, schools can choose from three options:

* Punishment and deterrence - involving sanctions, such as written exercises, social isolation, formal exclusion and other retributive strategies.

* Recognition systems - involving structured praise, incentives and extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, certificates and "treats".

* Ways of working that promote individual responsibility and the repairing of relationships - such as restorative, counselling and mediated approaches, of which peer mediation is one.

In 20 years of teaching, I have used all three. The first can provide a useful breathing space, but a high proportion of threats and punishments is meted out to a relatively small proportion of pupils, often to no positive effect. Even where this appears to work, am I alone in feeling a deep sense of unease? What message are we sending regarding the appropriate use of power?

The second has been much promoted in recent years. Recognition systems can provide a concrete platform for developing effective working relationships and can be helpful in turning around entrenched behaviours. However, schools frequently experience two difficulties in implementing such systems: achieving staff consistency and long-term maintenance.

Essentially preventative in nature, recognition systems do not provide teachers with effective responses to conflict. The temptation is often to revert to threat or punishment. "They bribe us, we behave," to quote one 15-year-old.

Peer mediation offers one alternative, but it also raises a number of challenges for those involved:

* Are young people able to take on the significant responsibilities involved in being mediators?

* Can they leave behind learnt behaviours and adopt alternative approaches? There is clear evidence that they can.

* Are parents willing to let young people resolve their own problems? Can they accept that existing retributive approaches don't get everyone's needs met?

* Are school staff willing to lessen their tendency to take personal responsibility for outcomes? Can they commit to genuinely restorative approaches?

* Are schools and councils willing to commit resources to essential training and support?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some schools operate something that they call "peer mediation", but which is fundamentally not and which may be counterproductive. Do they sometimes see the promotion of peer mediation as an alternative to addressing systemic factors and adult attitudes that can contribute to disturbing behaviour?

The Scottish Executive Education Department promotes peer support schemes nationally, through the Better Behaviour, Better Learning initiatives, although the emphasis to date has been on buddying and mentoring. Three councils have been funded to pilot restorative approaches in schools including, in some, mediation.

But challenges also exist for the SEED. Is it willing to recognise and actively promote a potentially valuable and effective resource? Can it, along with bodies such as the Scottish Mediation Network, help address wider issues such as standards in training and practice?

A further challenge faces us all. Young people are generally more open than adults to new experiences. It can be easier to support them than it is adults in changing their attitudes and behaviours when responding to conflict. But is it fair to expect young people to lead the way?

Richard Hendry is chair of the education initiative group of the Scottish Mediation Network.

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