Children represent one of a number of vulnerable groups within the broad category of human participants, along with disabled people, older people and people with learning difficulties, for example. The label ‘vulnerable’ highlights the special concerns associated with researchers working with children, and this section focuses on the particular characteristics of children as a group that are specifically relevant when considering research ethics.
There are three main reasons why children are considered to be vulnerable:
- first, there will almost inevitably be a perceived (and usually real) power imbalance between child and researcher
- second, children’s abilities to comprehend research and the reasons why it is being conducted may be very different to those of adults
- third, there is concern that negative experiences during childhood may have an effect on subsequent development, with the risk of long-term psychological harm.
These three aspects of children’s vulnerability when participating in research each have different implications for the design of research and how it is conducted. They are also embedded within a broader framework of socially constructed beliefs about childhood, children and what is right and proper conduct for adults involved in professional work with children. Perhaps the most obvious of these beliefs is that adults working with children should not have any history of criminal offences against children, which it is increasingly expected that anyone wanting to work with children should be able to prove.
In England and Wales, this is most commonly confirmed by applying to the Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) for a DBS check, which produces what is called a ‘disclosure’ of matters relating to a person occupying a certain job role. There are different rules for getting a criminal record check in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are conducted by Disclosure Scotland and AccessNI respectively.
In England and Wales, the DBS check has to be requested by the employer, which receives a list of any previous criminal convictions against an individual. Checks can be requested at three levels: standard, enhanced and enhanced with barred list checks. The enhanced levels go beyond a simple record of criminal convictions and can extend into other records held by the Criminal Records Bureau, such as allegations and complaints made against a person, failed prosecutions or police suspicions about a person’s conduct.
Anyone wishing to conduct research in an English school is usually expected to have gained at least a standard level of clearance from the DBS. It is becoming generally accepted as good practice for anyone engaged in direct contact with children in the course of research to have a recent DBS disclosure.