The initial contact between a mediator and each party in mediation can have a significant impact on the course of the mediation from then on.
Most people have not experienced a mediation before so it is obviously a time to outline the process and clarify the principles of voluntary participation, mediator impartiality, confidentiality of discussions and decision making being in the hands of the parties themselves. Participants can be reassured that, whilst it is a process to be taken seriously, it takes place in an informal setting in which open, straightforward communication is facilitated.
More than this, though, is the opportunity to promote ‘mediation thinking’ prior to the meeting taking place. Parties can be encouraged to consider the outcomes they are seeking, to prioritise these outcomes and assess short and long term gains or losses. Thus they start to move away from a win/lose mindset into one of focusing on the main issues, sometimes narrowing down the areas of dispute, and to think more creatively about solutions.
SEN mediations are different from others in that often the local authority representative does not have the ability to settle a dispute on that day. Decisions about assessing a young person for an Education, Health and Care Plan and/or implementing one may be taken by a panel of professionals, the outcome of which cannot be guaranteed. Local authorities do not have a standard way of dealing with SEN requests and so it is vital to clarify exactly what the procedures are and what information is required, acceptable and helpful in negotiating the process successfully.
Mediating with particular local authorities over a period of time can mean that the mediator comes across the same representative on a number of occasions. It is really important to acknowledge this with the young people and their parents/carers to allay any fears of lack of impartiality by the mediator.
Parents and carers of young people with special educational needs are often in the dark about their local authority’s procedures or have ideas based on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. The initial contact by the mediator can go a long way in managing their expectations of the outcome by informing them of the information requirements of the local authority to access support. Also parents/carers (and often school representatives) need encouragement, if not permission, to portray a realistic picture of the needs of their child and the difficulties they experience, whilst not underestimating the obvious joy they bring to their lives.