Transforming schools into collaborative and problem-solving communities

14 March 2022

James Taylor

James has been an accredited mediator since 2011, and he has recently taken on full-time mediation after almost two decades as a teacher and deputy headmaster. He has a passion for working with schools, with the aim of creating safer environments that are conducive to learning and greater tolerance. He is accredited as a commercial mediator, a workplace mediator, and a family mediator.

One of the aims of the National Development Plan 2030, is to create a country where people feel safer at home, work and at school. Communities should be free from fear, but what is really happening in schools to make them safer and how are we assisting young South Africans to develop the tools that will allow them to deal with conflict in their daily lives?

The Hard Facts

The statistics on the levels of violence in schools have not been readily available for years, but the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention’s 2012 National School Violence Study highlights the alarming increases in school violence, with one in five secondary school students having experienced violence at school. Police statistics between April 2019 and March 2020 recorded 9 murders and 19 attempted murders as a result of bullying in schools. With increasing rates of unemployment, poverty and the pressures of COVID-19 on schools, we can only assume that conflict in schools has at best, remained the same or worsened, as there have been no new approaches to dealing with the issue.

In South Africa, issues such as bullying, racism, sexism, exclusion, victimisation, misbehaviour and violence are a growing crisis in our school system. Despite the clear frameworks and discipline guidelines, there are very few programmes being implemented so that schools effectively deal with conflict in more suitable ways.

The Challenge

Conflict in school settings is a global phenomenon and a major challenge. Conflict in the classroom negatively impacts on the teacher’s ability to teach and the student’s ability to learn, along with the spillover effects in the local communities. The need for conflict intervention and non-violent communication in schools is widely recognised, however, the implementation of such solutions has not been adequately applied in South Africa.

Unfortunately, approaching conflict and violence in schools is not as simple as putting up better fencing and providing a security guard at each school. Most violence in schools takes place in the classroom and teachers do not have the necessary skills to resolve conflict effectively. Dealing with conflict is a specialised skill and requires more than a booklet issued by the DBE, explaining to teachers how they should resolve conflict in the school environment. Training teachers on how to deal with conflict is one of the most underemphasized aspects of teacher training.

Teachers still focus on controlling and managing student behaviour by leaning towards punishment and sanctions to resolve conflicts. This does not empower students, instead, it teaches students to depend on authority figures to resolve conflict. Encouraging students to be joint architects in matters affecting them promotes feelings of control and autonomy.

What are the alternatives?

Well-structured programmes that teach both students and teachers the skills and techniques needed to deal with conflict is the most effective approach. Well-trained and experienced mediators and professionals that deal with conflict resolution, need to get involved. Each school needs to be assessed, so that a unique programme to deal with their individual circumstances for those teachers and students is developed.

Students and teachers need very different programmes, as their needs and expected approaches to dealing with conflict will be very different. Teachers are key components of the change process, and the modelling of positive conflict resolution behaviour is needed from them. Schools must fully invest and adopt this approach, as forcing it upon them, will undoubtedly, be met with failure.

The Life Orientation curriculum does very little to address conflict resolution. Peer mediation and conflict resolution training for students, will provide them with the skills that allow them to mediate disputes between fellow students. Integrating effective conflict resolution into schools encourages students to apply conflict resolution skills when it matters most. Student-centred programmes train students to be peacemakers who work with their peers to help resolve conflicts that occur at school.

Ideally, each school would have a group of students that form part of a panel for all students to approach when needed. The idea of hierarchical student systems in schools is outdated and a more people-centred approaches are needed to tackle their issues. A top-down, power-based system to solve conflict in schools is not suitable.

This approach is not about removing power and control from teachers, it is about believing in the youth and their ability to resolve their own conflicts. At the same time, peer mediation can build confidence among young people, cultivate their leadership and communication skills.

Transforming schools into collaborative and problem-solving communities is a necessity. Not only will we see students leaving school with better academic results, but we will see young adults who are more likely to participate constructively in their communities.

The Conflict Dynamics Empowerment Trust, which was established in April 2021, will be working with its first school at the end of March, to equip the whole school’s staff with adequate tools to deal with conflict and resolve disputes. Teachers who are identified through the training will have the opportunity to participate in additional training, so they can independently develop a sustainable approach to managing conflict in their own communities.

This initiative, known as the Peacemaker Project, will continue to support the school by working with the students to develop peer mediation committees that will broaden the scope of conflict resolution within the school.