As part of the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) Public Mental Health Programme, researchers Rhiannon Barker and Greg Hartwell are exploring the links between school culture and mental health. In this blog they explore some of the challenges encountered in negotiating the recruitment dilemmas of school-based research.
Research carried out in schools presents a complex array of ethical and practical challenges which need to be considered carefully in advance of embarking on fieldwork. Schools potentially provide access to an array of students from across diverse sociodemographic groups and are therefore a favoured location for gathering data. Yet every school, of course, has a clear duty of care to keep children and young people safe and protect them from harm. Issues around collecting consent in an age-appropriate way, as well as the importance of not coercing students to divulge information they are uncomfortable with, or may later regret, deserve full consideration. The burden of research and its capacity to distract from core school processes also needs constant scrutiny.
In accordance with this, schools adopt clear governance procedures restricting and controlling access for anyone into the school who is not a recognised member of staff. Felzmann describes how potential benefits of data collection have to be considered against possible harms. For these reasons, applications to undertake research in schools have historically been carefully monitored and interrogated.
Growing pressures and challenges on school-based research
Over the last decade, a number of changing environmental and infrastructural changes have added to the challenges of research involving schools. As digital technologies have grown ever more complex and data can increasingly be shared across organisations, sectors, settings and even countries at the touch of a button, heightened importance has understandably been attached to the protection of personal information and the uses to which it can be put. The introduction of the UK GDPR in 2018 together with the 2018 Data Protection Act, (through which the UK GDPR is enacted) reflects the increasing awareness of the potential for data protection breaches. Conducting research therefore, in public spaces, is now inevitably facing higher levels of regulation. Add to this the current context of additional pressures created by the pandemic – and the resulting ethical and logistical landscape is one which many researchers are finding hard to navigate.
Experience from our research following lockdowns
Our SPHR project, exploring support for school culture and student mental health in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated school closures, is not unusual in the difficulties confronted in recruiting schools to participate. Initial approaches met with a variety of responses, with many schools citing the pressures of academic assessment and the need to prioritise ‘catching up’ following the disruption of the pandemic. Some schools reported that normal practice was to put requests for research straight into their junk folders. Others that the research themes just were not considered relevant or the subject matter was too sensitive.
One of our original research objectives, for instance, was to interrogate links between substance use and mental health in the secondary school context – but early feedback from schools suggested that such a sensitive theme created a further obstacle to recruitment. The success of a school is based to some degree on the trust and support it attracts from parents and the local community, and any association with ‘substance use’ (regarding which most schools purport to have ‘zero tolerance’) was often seen to jeopardise the school’s reputation. We are certainly not alone in this experience; a 2011 ESPAD Report on substance use among students in 36 European Countries found that only 6% of the 1,255 UK schools approached agreed to participate – this figure was lower than all other countries and dramatically down on previous rounds of ESPAD research. Reasons given included being too busy, that the research was not of interest or that the school had a policy not to undertake external research.
Working closely with schools to make research relevant
Our solution to the recruitment challenges confronted has been to work with schools to shape our research into something that would inform their own priorities in relation to supporting student mental health, whilst keeping our own core aims intact. Whilst at times it has felt that this has meant balancing along a rather wobbly high wire, we have found it helpful to demonstrate the relevance of our work in relation to the schools’ own strategic planning. We have also worked closely with professionals from the civil service and third sector organisations with the intention that the study will be embedded in current policy and practice, aiming to ensure that the route between research and impact is both transparent and navigable.
On a practical and logistical level, we have endeavoured to adapt data collection methods to fit with schools’ requirements relating to social distancing and access. Rapid PCR tests have helped achieve a degree of access (on top of the usual Data Barring Service (DBS) checks to examine criminal records), while many interviews which we anticipated conducting in the school setting have needed to be undertaken remotely using Zoom.
Our intention throughout has been to be as open and collaborative as possible, aiming to forge trusting partnerships with the school representatives and leadership teams involved. Navigating this tension between maximising the value of the research grant while responding to the individual, shifting concerns of our sites has not always been easy to resolve, but we hope should ultimately strengthen our research and its real-world relevance.