CYC-Online 18 JULY 2000
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teaching peace

Towards mutual understanding in our schools

A three-part article on efforts to address peace education and mediation in schools in Northern Ireland and South Africa

I: Education for mutual understanding

In Northern Ireland since 1992 it has been a statutory requirement that children at school learn about conflict and non-violent ways of resolving it, through the Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) programme. This provides an opportunity to promote alternative ways of dealing with conflict, such as peer mediation. The following extract from a speech by Jerry Tyrell, Director of the EMU Promoting School Project, described the programme and some of the issues it has faced.

Education for mutual understanding exists as a statutory cross-curricular theme, and as a voluntary cross-community contact scheme. There are moves to implement peace education in the curriculum in South Africa, and a lot of a good thinking has gone into these proposals. The experience of Northern Ireland may or may not be relevant, but nevertheless it is worth tracing the history of Education for Mutual Understanding.

In the late 1970s it was apparent to a number of individual educationalists, administrators and some enlightened civil servants as well as teachers, that integrated education, while a possibility, could not have more than a minimal impact on segregated education, even by the year 2000. However, it was felt that something had to be done to try and encourage pupils to bridge the sectarian gap and establish meaningful contact between Protestant and Catholic children. Schools, like housing estates, like jobs, tended to reinforce the division.

A move therefore began to establish joint activities between state or 'controlled' schools, and Catholic or 'maintained' schools, involving educational trips or joint studies. Such programmes were prompted by grant-aid, particularly for transport. Wary of terms like 'peace education', or 'human rights', or community relations', the Department of Education for Northern Ireland opted for Education for Mutual Understanding for its title. Schools acting on mixed motives of enlightened self-interest took advantage of the funding, and depending usually on the commitment of individual members of staff, some innovative programmes were established. However, there were too many tales of meaningless rather than meaningful contact, with children from two schools sitting at opposite ends of the bus throughout.

Research was beginning to illustrate that contact, while still a necessary part of Education for Mutual Understanding, was not in itself sufficient. There are various levels of contact. Further, some of the elements that were traditionally perceived as requiring contact could be undertaken by what were becoming known as “single identity groups". These were Protestant or Catholic groups, rather than Protestant and Catholic groups. Preparation was often necessary before contact, however non-threatening the nature of the contact.

In the late 1980s, when the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project was set up as an action research project at the University of Ulster, we were keen to support teachers working in the field of Peace Education in general and EMU in particular. We were not particularly interested in curriculum development “it wasn't our forte and was being covered well by other programmes. We were more interested in conflict resolution skills training.

The personnel involved in the project at the time had a background in informal youth work, and fairly negative personal experiences of schooling, having left school at the earliest opportunity. We found the team quick to establish a rapport with pupils, but more difficult to do the same with teachers.

By focusing on the conflicts that most directly affected children's lives, we discovered that the macro conflicts, between loyalists and nationalists, or paramilitaries and the British Army, weren't necessarily the ones that impacted on the everyday lives of individual children. That is not to say that their lives had been untouched by the Troubles, but that when asked what the key conflict was, they might answer, “having to feed the dog every day" or, “the way the teacher shouted and banged on the desk". So from the outset we learned from the children themselves that there was a need to discover skills to deal with the conflicts that meant most to them. If we weren't able to respond to their agenda, there was little point trying to tackle any other. It was like transplanting reconciliation where none had been requested.

Maslow, in his hierarchy of human needs, points to a sense of belonging as a basic human need after food, water and shelter. Self esteem is very much tied into this “being valued for who you are, being welcome, being part of the group, belonging. Being valued and a sense of belonging are key elements of what we are looking for from others. The skills that help us achieve these and those that solve conflict, are the same – affirmation, communication, co-operation and problem solving.

These are often represented as an iceberg. When a conflict breaks the surface, we need to explore what is happening below the surface. Usually there is one or more of three dysfunctions – non co-operation, non-communication and an absence of self-esteem. We therefore need to encourage the skills of affirmation, communication and co-operation in order to transform the conflict. Of these, I believe affirmation is the most important We would often work with a class in an individual school and then bring it together with a school across the sectarian divide, and the teachers would realise that conflict resolution skills of affirmation, communication and co-operation and problem solving reinforced meaningful dialogue and genuinely added to mutual understanding.

Gradually over time we have realised that to work with one class in a school on conflict resolution skills is too much of a piecemeal approach. In our current project – EMU Promoting School Project which took over from the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project six months ago – we are focusing on two key areas: establishing peer mediation in Northern Ireland, and supporting schools who wish to see peer mediation at the heart of the school ethos. Essentially we are looking at a whole school approach that involves children, teachers, principals, the ancillary staff, the parents and the governors. We have had examples of situations where an adult and child have mediated a conflict between an adult and a child. There are parallels between such work and the initiatives which are happening here in South Africa.

II: Cultivating peace in a South African school

Here, Valerie Dovey, Co-ordinator of the Centre for Conflict Resolution 's Youth Project, describes the process of promoting a culture of peace in a particular Cape Town school community, and then talks to some of the pupil mediators about the peace process in their school.

Wynberg Girls' Junior School has just celebrated its 111th birthday. 1996 numbers, inclusive of the pre-primary classes, are close to 760. While the school has traditionally served Cape Town's Southern Suburbs areas of Wynberg, Constantia, Kenilworth and Claremont, the “opening" of schools has meant that the feeder areas and the pupil population are changing. Pupils now travel from as far afield as Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Simon's Town.

In 1993 an institutionalised peace process began at this school (although the Centre for Conflict Resolution's Youth Project had already presented a seminar over viewing Peace Education at a staff development meeting the previous year). Some highlights of the process follow. The SRC adopted a Peace theme in 1993 with the motto “Peace and education leads to progress". A number of projects were initiated, aiming to reach everyone in the school. The first was a Peace Work shop run by the Quaker Peace Centre, followed by a Saturday workshop for parents and daughters.

In response to suggestions from the pupils, SRC members organised Peace Games during break for each Sub A, Sub B and Std 1 class. These proved effective, and were popular in carrying the peace message to younger pupils. The school also identified itself with broader societal peace efforts. Pupils and staff wore white ribbons as symbols of peace, and a Peace Bell was rung at 11h 59 each day to herald a minute's silence.

Neighbouring schools participated in a ceremony on National Peace Day on September 2. More than 2500 pupils stood outdoors in concentric circles, linking hands, praying, and singing a peace song. Pupils released 200 blue and white balloons with peace messages attached.

In 1995 a Peer Mediation programme was formally introduced. In January Jeannette Welgemoed, Std 5 teacher, and Rose Rushton, Std 1 teacher, attended a 3-day Peer Mediation Training and Implementation programme for primary school teachers, presented by the Centre for Conflict Resolution's Youth Project. They were convinced that Peer Mediation was workable in their school setting, and reported this back to the school staff together with an illustrative role-play.

Teachers staged the traditional Beatrix Potter conflict between Farmer McGregor and Peter Rabbit as the basis for a mediation role-play at school assembly, introducing the pupil body to the concept of mediation.

Two one-day conflict resolution training workshops followed, one for staff members who “wanted to hear more", and the other for a group of parent and daughter volunteers.

Thirty Std 4 pupils participated in a two day Peer Mediation workshop presented by Jeannette Welgemoed, Rose Rushton, Miss Anderson and two other teachers. “They picked up the skills so quickly – they were so open. They referred to the terms as though they were nothing new" (Jeannette Welgemoed, teacher).

Peer Mediator recruitment followed and a series of meetings was then initiated to plan future events on a consultative basis. The girls had to suggest how to promote the programme.

One suggestion taken up was a presentation to the Sub A, Sub B and Std 1 assembly. The Peer Mediator group designed and acted out a mediation role-play. This was followed by another assembly mediation role-play, this time for the entire school. A member of the Centre for Conflict Resolution Youth Project team handed out certificates to peer mediators. This ceremony marked the official launch of the Peer Mediation programme. Jeannette Welgemoed and Rose Rushton are formally responsible for co-ordinating the Peer Mediation Programme and have enlisted the assistance of other staff. Co-ordinating involves arranging duty rosters for Mediators and duty staff. Each day four Mediators and one teacher are on “back-up" duty, collating report forms and organising regular meetings to monitor progress and provide further skills support. Jeannette and Rose stress the importance of their principal's interest and support.

III: Peer mediators' views

Valerie Dovey spoke to five Grade 6 Mediators (Robyn Hendricks, Angelique Lettering, Ruschda van der Westhuizen, Sasha Hadley and Rim Plimsoll), and the two teachers who spearheaded the Peer Mediation programme (Jeannette and Rose), about the introduction and early days of the programme.

She asked the group about the role they feel the programme has to play in their school. The discussion reflected the girls' feelings about the prevalence of conflict in the world, and the fact that mediation helps people solve their problems and can be used in their homes, among their friends and in their communities. “We can't just keep our conflicts inside. It's good to start working with them while they're still small – if you don't solve them they get worse."

The discussion highlighted the value for the parties in conflict. Besides being able to come up with their own solutions, they are also learning through the process how to prevent conflict happening or escalating when it does.

"In a world like today, people have to learn to help one another and mediation is a step in the right direction" (Robyn). The girls stressed their families' support for their Peer Mediator roles. “My mom is very supportive and encouraging. She said it's a commitment and I mustn't let others down" (Kim).

The kinds of problems coming to Peer Mediation so far have mainly related to friendships.

"We're not looking at [the problems of] one age group – little problems are still big for little people" (Peer Mediator).

In discussing the challenges Peer Mediators face, one pupil said: “it looked easier than it is. It's not just a packet of peanuts. You have to work at it and you can't take sides."

Some comments highlight the very areas seasoned adult mediators wrestle with on a regular basis and underpin the importance of specialised skills training for mediators of any age:

"When people cry, you can't just say 'don't worry, it'll be OK'. You can't give too much attention to one party; you also need lots of patience and you've got to keep cool. You can't just say, 'stop being pathetic'. You also have to be very understanding even though you can't always understand what the parties are saying" (Kim).

"It's hard not to show bias while helping the quieter one. You can't force it [participation]. It's also hard when they come back to you and want you to mediate when you are off duty. Explaining the process takes much longer with the smaller [younger] people" (Angelique).

"Respecting others and how they feel without judging ... you have to watch your body language and how you are speaking, especially with the little ones" (Robyn).

These 11- and 12-year olds are aware of the challenges, are verbalising them and getting to grips with them. So much for the cynics who say that peer mediation can never work at primary school level!

From Track Two, a quarterly publication of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, University of Cape Town, Private Bag Rondebosch 7700

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