We must design some ethical guidelines around using and conducting research in schools

Dr Gary Jones (image source: UKFEChat)

I've recently begun to think about whether the school research/evidence community has a shared understanding of the similarities and differences between research, quality improvement and evidence-based practice (EBP).

This is a critical issue because if schools and school leaders are not fully aware of the similarities and differences, there's a real danger that significant ethical issues could go unnoticed. This could mean that pupils might be disadvantaged by well meaning (but ultimately flawed) attempts at research masquerading as quality improvement or EBP.

So here's my guide to helping school leaders explore the ethical implications of developing a research-based or evidence-based school.

What do we mean by research, quality improvement and evidence-based practice?

Without wanting to get too far into the scientifics, here are some broad definitions to help get a handle on the three aspects of education research:

Research is the process of creating new generalisable knowledge, including developing and testing hypotheses.

Quality Improvement has been defined as systematic, data-guided activities designed to bring about immediate improvements.

EBP has been defined as making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome.

Rodney Hicks summarised these succinctly in relation to healthcare in his article, Maintaining Ethics is Quality Improvement. His definition could be re-purposed for education to read something like: quality improvement seeks to improve the individual school or multi-academy trust, research generates new knowledge, and EBP allows educators to have and use the best available evidence when making a decision.

Here is a summary of the different activities which might be done in research, quality improvement and EBP so you can further see the differences.

Research

Activities could include: Participation in an Education Endowment Foundation randomised control trials; working with a university on a study to into teachers' use of new technology; a member of staff conducting doctoral research under the supervision of a higher education provider.

Quality improvement

Activities could include: Interviewing colleagues about examination performance in a department and producing an action plan; changing pupil enrolment systems; an internal school trial to provide a new approach to individual exam support.

EBP

Activities could include: Undertaking a review of existing evidence – research, school, stakeholders and personal experience – on graded lesson observations and making a decision on whether to move to a non-graded approach; undertaking a review of existing evidence on the effectiveness of marking homework and adopting a new school-wide policy.

How research, quality improvement and EPB overlap

These three terms drive each other in many ways. For example, research and evidence-based practice both inform quality improvement, but research may be driven by questions that arise from quality improvement and EBP.

But there also some clear overlaps between the methods associated with research and those with quality improvement. Hicks argues that in healthcare some quality improvement efforts have a clear purpose, scope, data-collection method and sophisticated approaches to data analysis – just as you would see in research.

Even in education in the UK, we have the Education Endowment Foundation's The DIY Evaluation Guide which uses the language of research – for example, interventions, measures pre-tests, post-tests random allocation, matched control groups, effect-sizes, analysis and reporting of results.

This brings up some key ethical issues because research is closely regulated, whereas quality improvement in education so far is not. As Lynn et al state in their essay on quality improvement in healthcare: "Ethical issues arise in QI (quality improvements) because attempts to improve quality may inadvertently cause harm, waste scarce resources, or affect some patients unfairly."

The issue is laid more starkly when you look at BERA's guidelines.

BERA's Ethical Guidelines for the conduct of research

BERA's guide to the ethical conduct of research outlines the researcher's responsibilities to: participants; sponsors; the community of educational researchers; educational professionals; policy makers and the general public.

Let's just focus on the responsibilities to participants to begin with. To what extent have the following issues – extracts from the guidance on research – been considered when you have designed a quality improvement activity?

  • Voluntary informed consent – participants understand and agree to their participation without any duress, prior to the research getting underway.
  • Openness and disclosure – researchers must avoid deception or subterfuge unless their research design specifically requires it to ensure that the appropriate data is collected or that the welfare of the researchers is not put in jeopardy.
  • Right to withdraw – researchers must recognise the right of any participant to withdraw from the research for any or no reason, and at any time, and they must inform them of this right. In all such circumstances researchers must examine their own actions to assess whether they have contributed to the decision to withdraw and whether a change of approach might persuade the participants to re-engage.
  • Issues specific to children, vulnerable young people and vulnerable adults – researchers must comply with articles 3 and 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 3 requires that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration.
  • Incentives – researchers' use of incentives to encourage participation must be commensurate with good sense and must avoid choices which in themselves have undesirable effects (eg the health aspects of offering cigarettes to young offenders or sweets to school-children).
  • Detriments arising from participating in research – researchers must make known to the participants (or their guardians or responsible others) any predictable detriment arising from the process or findings of the research. Any unexpected detriment to participants, which arises during the research, must be brought immediately to their attention or to the attention of their guardians or responsible others as appropriate.

Researchers must take steps to minimise the effects of designs that advantage or are perceived to advantage one group of participants over others.

  • Privacy – The confidential and anonymous treatment of participants' data is considered the norm for the conduct of research. Researchers must recognise the participants' entitlement to privacy and must accord them their rights to confidentiality and anonymity, unless they or their guardians or responsible others, specifically and willingly waive that right.
  • Disclosure – Researchers who judge that the effect of the agreements they have made with participants, on confidentiality and anonymity, will allow the continuation of illegal behaviour,which has come to light in the course of the research, must carefully consider making disclosure to the appropriate authorities.

If these issues have been considered, addressed and been subject to some form of internal review, for a quality improvement scheme, that is great. On the other hand, if these issues have been dismissed or ignored, then there is a real risk that pupils may be harmed by badly designed quality improvement activities.

We cannot put this down to ignorance or claim we don't know how to put ethical frameworks in place: BERA has clear ethical guidelines for research and there is extensive literature in the health sector on the ethical considerations of quality improvement, with clear guidelines as to how to proceed.

Much of the so-called research or EBP in schools could actually be classified as quality improvement. Unfortunately, within this, there is a real risk that teachers aren't aware of the ethical implications of such activities, which may place pupils at avoidable risk – and we cannot claim ignorance to this any longer.

This article originally ran on Dr Jones' Evidence Based Educational Leadership blog. You can find it here.

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