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Research with children conducted in schools, nurseries or other organisations

It is important to note that when we refer to consent in this context it is consent for ethical purposes and for certain studies to also satisfy the common law duty of confidence and not consent for data protection purposes. In all instances the legal basis for the processing of personal data is public interest task and for special category data, the additional condition for research purposes.  Therefore when constructing your consent form you should only include statements related to ethical issues, examples of which can be found in the GDPR compliant templates listed above.1

This type of research falls into 3 distinct categories and guidance for each can be found below.

Please note that in scenario 2 and 3 below it is assumed that the children are of an age where their own capacity to legally consent is ruled out and therefore does not become an issue. In addition, in all cases of consent requirements these must be fulfilled by the parents/guardians and consent cannot be provided by other individuals such as teachers or coaches (no other individual than the parent/guardian is able to provide consent by proxy for research).

If research relies on parental consent there has to be age appropriate information for children and, except in the case of very small children, an assent procedure.

The following participant information templates have been produced for research with children. Please note that these are examples which have been created for a fictitious study but that contain wording that is written in age appropriate terms. Please consider the possible differences in reading vs chronological age when drafting your own information sheet and ensure that you produce a version which is suitable for the youngest participant within the group.

Important note: According to the GDPR regulations every child has the right to access their personal data, know exactly what it is being used for and be provided with the details of someone they can go to if they have questions or concerns. To ensure that all children are adequately informed you must ensure you include age appropriate wording in your information sheet which specifically mentions these details. For older children you should also ensure you mention the legal basis for data processing and include a hyperlink to the Research Privacy Notice. Please see the example information sheets for children listed above for suggested wording.

1. Research taking place without parental/guardian consent but with the consent of the child

Criteria and requirements:

  • The children must have legal capacity to consent, i.e. they must be able to understand the details of the project and the choice they are being asked to make about participation. This has to be established on an individual basis for each child, so the project has to contain a mechanism for assessing capacity. Capacity cannot be decided on the basis of chronological age alone but, as a heuristic rule, capacity to consent to research is not present before the age of 13.
  •  If the project is on a sensitive issue a justification has to be provided for not seeking parental consent. This justification has to be more than ‘it is easier to recruit if the children can consent for themselves’.
  • The children must be provided with complete information about the University’s data governance procedures and the Research Privacy Notice.

2. Research taking place with parental/guardian opt-out in-lieu of consent

Criteria and requirements:

  • The children have to be of an age where their assent can be reasonably assumed to be based on an understanding of the project and there has to be no detrimental treatment of the children who do not assent.
  • All parents/guardians must be informed about any collection of personal data to ensure compliance with the GDPR. The communication to parents must therefore be done by a method that reasonably ensures that they receive the information about the data collection and their opportunity to opt-out; and the opt-out mechanism must be simple.  A paper copy of the information sheet being placed in the school bag of the child is not sufficient. If used it must be accompanied by another more reliable means of communications such as electronic communication to the parents via an emailed school newsletter, direct school email, or text message, or by a letter sent by post.
  • The research:
    • is classified as low or medium risk according to the UREC or School guidelines
    • is unlikely to cause any distress and if a reward is being offered that all children receive the same reward
    • only involves activities that normally take place in this particular school, for this particular age group; or the observation of such activities.  Please note that the range of activities taking place in schools from nursery to Year 11-12 is vast and differs from school to school. Examples of what would fall within this category are:
      •  observation of ordinary teaching or classroom discussion of non-sensitive topics
      • short, anonymous questionnaires on some aspect of teaching or the school day in general
      • student evaluation of teaching of a part of the standard curriculum in a particular way, etc
  • uses personal, but non-sensitive data already held by the school, or involves the school collecting such data on behalf of the researcher
  • If using audio recordings, they will only be used for the recording of interviews or focus groups
  • The research does NOT:
    • involve a particularly sensitive issue which will be dependent on both context and age of the children. What is a sensitive topic in a religious all-girls school may not be a sensitive topic elsewhere
    • involve physical testing, invasive techniques or psychological intervention
    • involve video recording

3. Research taking place with explicit parental/guardian consent (opt-in)

Please note: this is the preferred option of the University Research Ethics Committees but for the following categories it is a requirement and ethical approval will not be granted unless this option is used.

Criteria and requirements

  • The research:
    • includes children with learning difficulties, those who require other types of support or have additional characteristics which may class them as potentially vulnerable[1]
    • involves physical testing, invasive techniques or psychological intervention
    • involves accessing medical information or performing medical tests such as eye or dental exams
    • involves audio recording for purposes other than the recording of interviews/focus groups
    • involves video recording
    • involves activities that are outside of the normal school curriculum
    • involves group activities where there is a possibility that the children could become distressed either through the activity itself or through a reward scheme (e.g. an activity where children are rewarded with stickers and one child ends up with more stickers than the other)
    • involves a sensitive issue which will be dependent on both the context and age of the children. This includes classroom observation of sensitive topics of discussion.
    • uses special category or sensitive (e.g. disciplinary or attendance record) data already held by the school, or involves the school collecting such data on behalf of the researcher

[1] In the following we refer to ’school’ for ease of writing. The same criteria apply to nurseries, organised youth clubs, scout and guide groups, sports clubs etc. with the necessary changes for these slightly different contexts.

[1] If research 1) involves class room observation or similar, 2) is performed in an ordinary school setting, and 3) is not focused on children with SEN issues or on SEN issues; then the mere fact that there may be children present in class who have learning difficulties or other SEN issues does not entail that parental consent is required.