How jaw-jaw can replace war-war: Adam Wishart visits a school where students are learning to work out their differences without resorting to violence

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The Independent Online
'SHE was showing off, annoying me, so I smacked her one,' remembers Jane, 14, of the T P Riley Community School in Walsall, West Midlands. 'But I wouldn't do it now, it ain't right. I could have done better just by telling her. After all, if she didn't stop she'd only get smacked by someone else.' The two girls are now best friends.

Jane's change of heart is the result of an innovative experiment that is teaching children to resolve disputes without resorting to violence. The school, in partnership with the independent Walsall Mediation Service, is integrating 'alternative conflict resolution' into the curriculum and providing a unique drop- in service for children involved in disputes or feeling under threat.

Angela Preston, the deputy headteacher, says there is no particular bullying problem in the school, but that there is conflict in all schools: 'All adolescents have to learn about relationships, sometimes they get it wrong. Petty teenage disagreements can escalate and can limit opportunities in education.'

Traditional strategies to reduce violence in schools depend on authority from teachers or psychologists. But conflict resolution aims to 'teach children the skills to deal with their disputes and then to let them get on with it', says Wendy Prince, of the mediation service.

Conflict resolution is included in a seven-week course called Living with Others that is taken by all 13-year-olds in the school. 'It aims to teach students respect for other people and to recognise their responsibilities as members of a community,' Ms Preston says. Through role playing, problem-solving exercises and discussions, students analyse why disputes occur and how to resolve them.

Despite the teaching, conflicts still arise and pupils remain wary about talking to teachers. In response, the mediation service has launched a confidential weekly lunchtime drop-in in the school. This allows students to release their

anxiety and decide what action should be taken. Teachers are made aware of the situation and are able to monitor

bullying.

The drop-in service also acts as a go- between, helping children to articulate their grievances. Mediation, unlike psychological approaches, tackles only current obstacles that prevent agreement. 'We don't force people to do anything or offer advice. The best solution could be that the students agree to dislike each other but will try to ignore the irritation,' Ms Prince says.

The project grew out of Walsall Mediation Service's finding that disputes between neighbours often spilled into schools. In its first term it has reduced bullying. But there are teething problems: developing familiarity and trust with the mediators has taken longer than expected and it is difficult for children to go to the service privately in a busy school. Ms Preston is satisfied with the service so far, but adds that mediation is just one of a number of approaches. 'We will test it and then see.'

Training conflict resolution in education is in its infancy in Britain: 15 projects practise it in various forms. Only in Walsall is there in-school mediation. Other schools concentrate on training lunchtime supervisors or children higher up in the school to respond to violence. In the United States thousands of schools teach conflict resolution, and there is a growing network across Europe.

Professor Peter Smith, of Sheffield University, who is carrying out the largest study of bullying in Britain, says that training conflict resolution skills and mediation can reduce bullying. But, he says, it must be integrated into a 'whole- school approach'.

He says the culture of some schools allows bullying to take place. The best way to counteract this, according to his initial findings, is collective commitment. This should be defined by a written policy and a set of procedures supported by governors, teachers, dinner supervisors, pupils and parents. It can be combined with a variety of other techniques, including conflict resolution, which have been developed in the past four years.

'By the end of the school year there will be a lot more material available to schools,' says Professor Smith. 'There will be encouragement from the Department for Education, and inspectors will be asking more direct questions. There should be a lot of progress in this area in the next few years.'

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