‘We should talk’

Mel, 14, became a volunteer peer mediator after restorative
justice sessions helped her with problems she was having at
Montgomery secondary school in Blackpool.

“I used to get picked on by a group who really had it in for
me,” she says. “They called me names and followed me around all the
time, tormenting me. Even when teachers intervened they didn’t stop
and it made me very sad.”

Then she went through a mediation session with her aggressors.
She says: “It really sorted out the situation. The girls agreed
they would leave me alone, even if we wouldn’t be friends, and that
was fine. In fact they are much friendlier now. Then somebody asked
me if I’d be interested in doing the training myself and I felt,
having been through that, I’d have experience to offer and I liked
the idea of being able to help other kids.

“The training helped me learn more about how people feel and how
I might be able to best help them. It also helped me cope better
myself when another nasty incident occurred. I became more
confident with other children and it led me to get involved with
the school council.”

Mel has carried out more than 20 mediations and through this she
has seen how easily, if her own problems had gone on, it might have
led her to truant from school or become aggressive and a bully

“The mediations are often over quite small things but what often
happens is that people stop playing tough and the aggressors, as
well as the person being victimised, may get upset and even cry.
But of course there are always stubborn people who don’t want to
change their behaviour and we can’t make them.”

There is support for this brand of conflict resolution from high
places. Rod Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board says: “We know
that teachers cannot be expected to put up with poor behaviour and
disruption in the classroom. We also know that children excluded
from school are much more likely to commit crime.

Restorative justice can be used to solve all types of issues
including bullying, name-calling, vandalism, theft, assault,
teacher-pupil conflict and non-attendance. And it can be used in
place of fixed-term or permanent exclusion.”

The RJ philosophy – often written into school policy when it is
adopted – stems from the same root as emotional literacy. The idea
is to help children and young people understand their actions, take
responsibility for them and find ways of resolving difficulties
themselves. It is used for anything from bad behaviour in the
classroom when a teacher may be able to use the RJ approach on a
one-to-one basis, to acrimony between pupils where intervention is
needed. Pupils who have to be taken out of the classroom may be
dealt with by one or two staff members, and possibly with
involvement from a trained-up peer mediator. Often, schools using
RJ talk of being startled at how responsive even their most
challenging children have been when they are given the chance to
express themselves and participate in the process of justice.

To develop restorative justice projects, the YJB turned to Leap
Confronting Conflict, a youth charity with a focus on personal and
social education of young people for the benefit of the community
as a whole. As well as offering training for restorative justice in
schools it runs the national Young Mediators’ Network
(youngmediatorsnetwork.org) where young volunteers of very
different backgrounds and experiences come together to learn to
understand conflict and train up as peer mediators.

Young Mediators’ Network project co-ordinator Gemma Davis says:
“The great virtue of young people working with others is that they
may be able to help peers in difficulties to find creative
solutions that an adult could not.”

The idea is that problems should be caught before they escalate,
and it is here that peer mediation is seen as so valuable. Peer
mediation is now being widely adopted in schools where staff
understand how differently children may react if they feel they are
involved in the process of discipline rather than experiencing the
imposition of discipline from an authority figure.

Leap sees restorative justice as an umbrella under which
different kinds of conflict resolution initiatives can happen.
Davis says: “It is about putting the power firmly in the hands of
those involved in conflict. When worked with creatively, conflict
is an opportunity for growth and change.”

Tension reduced:

Graham Robb introduced restorative justice at Drayton
School in Banbury, Oxfordshire, when he was head teacher. It has
made a great difference to the school he says. Most of their
conflicts are now successfully dealt with this way, there are fewer
exclusions and the school’s most recent Ofsted report praised the
school’s ethos. Plus, Robb asserts, it is an education in
citizenship for life beyond school . Drayton was on special
measures in 2000 and Harriet Wall, who was working on RJ at the
school describes what it was like at this time: “A lot of
difficulties with relationships, low self-esteem in many of the
pupils, bad educational under-achievement and a lot of tensions
between staff and pupils.”


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