What is a successful mediation?

I was asked this question recently, and by another (family) mediator, and it is a question that people frequently ask when they learn what I do.

I always respond with “It depends on what you consider to be success.” At least, that is the super short answer that leads to a much longer discussion! This is the discussion that I would like to have with you today.

I should start out by saying that I am far better with people than numbers and statistics (in fact they scare me far more than an angry, aggressive person in a mediation ever would!) and so specific stats of “success” are not to be found here. Plus, I’m about to argue that it is impossible to put a number to something as intangible and unquantifiable as a successful mediation.

People in positions of decision-making love stats – they lay out information in a very black and white way, and work to justify use of a service and funding. However, as every mediator knows, even the most seemingly black and white case, never is. I don’t like to use the phrase – a million shades of grey (far too sombre). Instead let’s say that all issues are a million shades of rainbow!

Why is success so hard to quantify in mediation, and specifically SEND Mediation? I guess it comes down to how you define success. What constitutes success?

If by success, you mean “Does the parent walk out of the mediation with everything that they walked in wanting?” then the answer would be no, probably not, a lot of the time. Of course it does happen, and if I’m doing several SEND Mediations in a week, then it probably will happen in that week, and maybe multiple times, perhaps…or maybe not. Of course I’m talking very generally, as with all mediations there are never any guarantees of outcome.

For myself personally, as a mediator, one of the ways that I judge my own mediations as successful, is if a parent doesn’t have to go further in the appeals process, namely by appealing to the Tribunal service. But even this is too narrow a concept of a successful mediation.

Many parents walk out of my mediations intending to continue their appeal via tribunal, and yet still feel that the meeting was productive and helpful. They feel that they got out of the meeting what they needed to, and feeling better prepared for their Tribunal appeal, even though the mediation has not resolved all their concerns and they are still within the process of getting what they want for their child. The mediation can crystallise for the parent exactly what their argument is, what they need to focus on and the evidence that will help their case.

This, then, is the crux of why figures can never display the whole picture of success in mediation. A parent may not get anything they thought they wanted in a mediation, but still leave the room happy. For me, this scenario celebrates the true power of mediation; that a successful mediation is far more than ticking off a list of achieved objectives. Let me explain this further…

Within a mediation, a parent has the opportunity to really understand the LA’s process and how and why they make the decisions they do. The parent can ask all the questions they need to, so that the parents have all the information they need to make the right decisions for them and their child. Just being able to talk to someone face to face, and to really feel listened to, is a very powerful experience for parents who may feel they have been “fighting the system” for years, as all of us mediators know well.

Additionally, mediation allows the responsibilities of the school in question to be laid out. Frequently I find that the issues the parent has with the LA, or that they want the LA to sort out, really reside with the school and the

communication issues existing between the school and parent. Having a representative from the school at the mediation can really help with this.

The SEN Officer and parent are able to work together to explore all possible options to ensure the child in question is in the right learning environment, with the right support in place. This may mean that ideas and solutions that had never occurred to the parent can be aired and explored. It can clarify in the parents’ mind, what they need to do, why they need to do it and how they are going to get to where they need to be. No longer do they feel that they are banging their heads against a brick wall, or “battling” a faceless government department, with an incomprehensible process and rationale. Mediation can be a very humanising process, and knowledge is very powerful in assuaging fears and confusion.

It is rare, in my experience, for a parent to leave a mediation angry/frustrated and feeling that the meeting was a complete waste of time. It does happen of course, but not often. Some people can have a very black or white mindset of – “give me what I want or I go to Tribunal and make you.” But people can walk into the mediation with this attitude but leave with a broader awareness of the options and a completely altered mindset. But for some, that is simply not possible. But as I said, it is rare.

I have written this blog very much from the perspective of the parent and the parent getting what they want out of the mediation. But we must not forget that this is a very beneficial process for the SEN Officer as well, enabling them to really work with the parent to find solutions that work for everyone, within the processes and resources laid out by the government.

I believe that a mediation is not simply a success if the parent gets everything they want, but that they have found the process and experience of mediation a positive and helpful one. Mediation is, at its core, a system to bring about a meeting of minds, to create understanding between the parties. For me, as an experienced SEN Mediator, the ultimate form of success – a parent not getting what they want but still leaving the mediation room happy, is a tick in the box for the power of the mediation process, and you can’t put a statistic on that.

— Loveday Penelope Fox, Senior SEND Mediator.