Research ethics, rule-following and schools

I recently reviewed an article reporting some research conducted in a school by teachers. One of the issues I feed back on was the school’s rules round research and how the author wrote about research ethics. The approach was to state that the researcher had followed the guidelines of the school it’s requirements in terms of research. The school policy was that they could conduct any research the school needed for its work without consulting parents. So no consent was sought from parents , or for that matter from pupils.

A number of issues arose from this. Research ethics seemed to be interpreted as following the legislation and policy of the school institution. If the organisation permitted it, it was fine. One of the dimensions of research ethics at my university is the involvement on the committee of members of the public external to the institution. Another was that the research we do is in accordance to established practices in education research, guided heavily by the BERA research ethics code. BERA is a very large research association that has a highly regarded ethics code. Now failure to follow ethics codes has significant consequences for researchers. In extreme cases they may be excluded from applying for some research grants. There is a professional consequence.

In English schools there has been an explosion of interest in research-led or evidence led teaching and a welcome encouraging of teachers to undertake research. This has always been encouraged although the shape of it has changed. When I started work in higher education in 2003, large numbers of teachers undertook Education Masters degrees with a strong research component that was usually based on their own school. The numbers doing masters programmes declined as fees went up and bursaries disappeared though many teachers still undertake research with a university providing ethics approval as part of structured postgraduate teaching programmes including many at doctoral level.

What is clear is that research ethics is not an internal matter, because ethics is not an internal matter. Codes of conduct needs to be observed in research processes and as we encourage more professionals to undertake research, we need to be sure that there are appropriate ethical frameworks in place to protect the participants, the researchers and everyone affected.

Of course, schools can undertake their own reports and look at data and must develop their practice, in ways that might include experimentation of non-medical kinds. However, in stating that something is research, it should have gone through a robust ethics process and been carried out in ethically appropriate ways. Research ethics is not the same as organisational rule-following.

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