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Ethics and The Role of Students in School Based Research Projects

As we draw towards the end of 2016 and I reflect back on the research work that we have been doing, one thread runs throughout the whole 12 months. That thread is the principle that students and their parents should be informed partners and participants in our research activities, not the passive subjects of it. 

We are bombarded with surveys and questionnaires in our everyday online lives, where even visiting a coffee shop can result in a text asking you to rate the experience and it can feel as if we are all participants in a giant social experiment.

School based research occupies a grey area that falls between professional development, school improvement and evidence based practice. There is a debate about where research begins and ends because it is customary for staff and schools to use test results and student data in order to assess progress and improve performance. 

Teachers may choose to engage with research as part of their own development as a teacher or leader, or to address a problem that needs solving.  We are also approached by universities and by the government to ask us to take part in larger studies that include students from all around the country.

Schools need to see students as having a choice to take part in such activities rather than assuming that belonging to a school means taking part without knowledge or consent. This is the field of knowledge known as ethics, and there are helpful guidelines available to schools produced by the British Educational Research Association known as BERA and these can be found on their website at https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/BERA-Ethical-Guidelines-2011.pdf

The guidelines make it clear to schools that all educational research should be conducted within an ethic of respect for:

  • The Person
  • Knowledge
  • Democratic Values
  • The Quality of Educational Research
  • Academic Freedom

‘Individuals should be treated fairly, sensitively, with dignity, and within an ethic of respect and freedom from prejudice regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, nationality, cultural identity, partnership status, faith, disability, political belief or any other significant difference.’ [1]

The first important responsibility is that of voluntary informed consent and at Homewood we have moved away from participating in projects that require parents to ‘opt out’ and moved towards projects that required parents to ‘opt in’ by returning a consent form.  Opting out is a problem because it assumes that the letter or information sheet has been safely delivered home for them to read and as we all know letters sometimes go astray and end up in the bottom of a bag or pocket.

Informed consent means that the participants understand what a project is all about, who will see the results and what the results will be used for.  If a parent or student is not sure about a study they should be provided with a contact name and number of someone who can help with further information.  Usually at Homewood this is myself as School Researcher but some projects will have another member of staff as their research lead.

The approach that we have taken at Homewood is to adapt a university ethics form for use by staff who wish to do a project.  They have to complete this to obtain ethics approval from the School Principal for their study.  Any external bodies that approach us to take part will usually have their own ethics approval from a UK university but we ask them to complete one of our forms as well.  We also require them to make it clear that students are free to withdraw from a study at any time and that we will not, as teachers, make them feel that they must continue to take part.

Another area which we have been careful to avoid is the use of rewards or inducements to take part in research as these may not be in the best interests of the child.  The wellbeing of the child is the first and overriding principle and leads all other considerations.

As we move into an era of political uncertainty that has been dubbed ‘post-fact’ by New Scientist[2] we need to uphold the values of academic freedom and democracy by engaging with high quality research and this should be a partnership with parents and children as informed participants, in a rational debate, that helps us make evidence based choices for a better future.

Dr Claire Tyson , Teacher Researcher at Homewood School

December 2016