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Connecting Rights and Reality in Educational Research with Children and Young People: Democratising Research Ethics Processes

Ralls, Deborah and Haines Lyon, Charlotte ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8341-744X (2022) Connecting Rights and Reality in Educational Research with Children and Young People: Democratising Research Ethics Processes. In: ECER 2022, “Education in a Changing World: The impact of global realities on the prospects and experiences of educational research”, 1st -10th September 2022, Yerevan. (Unpublished)

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In 2022, the European Year of Youth, and in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to reconsider the processes that we, in the field of educational research with children and young people, adopt in our research. The new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee (European Commission, 2021 a and b) are key European Commission policies aimed to “better protect all children, to help them fulfil their rights and to place them right at the centre of EU policy making”. Participation in political and democratic life is the first thematic area of the Strategy, emphasising the need for Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) to be taken seriously, with children and young people (CYP) able to act as agents of change in policy making and legislative decision-making processes that affect them. It is the ability of children and young people to act as agents of change within research that we are particularly addressing in this paper.
The decision to foreground the right of CYP to participate in and change EU policymaking is welcome, particularly for those working on more participatory approaches to research with CYP. However, this paper suggests that, whilst our own research methodologies may set out to work more democratically with CYP as partners, co-researchers and co-authors, there is a tension between the rights we wish to support and the reality of protectionist research ethics policies and processes in educational research.
The European Year of Youth 2022 explicitly recognises the challenges that children and young people have faced during the pandemic. However, children and young people are not passive victims. Recently, it has been impossible to ignore the ways in which so many children and young people have emerged as powerful educators. Our youngest citizens have been at the forefront of protests regarding Black Lives Matter and systemic racism, climate change, and gender violence. They have led to a variety of policy changes at local and national levels and have generated conversations across the generations about desirable futures and the importance of making change happen. CYP have thus shown us that it is vital that educational research enables CYP to have more than ‘a voice’ and to recognise and support children’s and young people’s power to initiate, develop and lead change that can create more inclusive, socially just futures for us all .
Yet, in spite of EU policy decisions, without the democratisation of educational research ethics processes, we are left with an unresolved “wicked problem” (Cuevas-Parras, 2020) where ethics processes are still based on notions of research that “does to” (Ferlazzo, 2011) rather than “does with” CYP, making it difficult to develop models of democratic research with CYP as co-producers, researchers and authors on matters of research that affect them.
Using examples from our research and practice, this paper uses relational (Holland et al, 1998) and democratic (Rancière, 2010, 2014) theories to highlight the need to connect rights and reality in educational research with CYP. We argue for the adoption of more democratic, inclusive and equitable ethics processes that can explicitly support CYP to recognise and exercise their fundamental right to participate in matters that affect them (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). Educational research ethics processes should reflect CYP’s position in this type of research as “front and centre as subjects of rights, subjects of learning, and competent social actors, able to shape their educational environments” ((Cuevas-Parras, 2020). However, such an approach is disruptive to institutional behaviour and power relationships.

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
We will analyse two case studies through the theoretical lenses of relational and democratic theory. The first case study is a participatory research project working with pupils to explore, challenge and change toilet policy and practice in an English secondary school. The second example is an international comparative study that explores place conscious education initiatives in Barcelona, Berlin, New York and Rio de Janeiro. The research examines policy and practice in education that actively encourages CYP’s engagement with the locality. In the latter stages of the project, CYP are supported to develop an exhibition or event where they give their own ideas and opinions on how education can help make their city a fairer place – and what they would like policymakers to do.
The two research case studies involve qualitative research projects with CYP where researchers wanted to foreground the experiences and expertise of CYP and to work with CYP as co-researchers and co-producers of research outputs on issues that affect them. We wished to work with children in an act of “knowledge creation rather than knowledge extraction” (Clarke, 2018, p18). Co-creating knowledge is vital if we are to further democracy and the ability of CYP to further democracy by shaping the world. This requires a move away from extracting and colonising voice in a move to uphold the status quo to affording more agentic disruptive methodologies (Tuck and Yang, 2014).

Research projects giving voice to children and specifically democratic in nature, often run into trouble at the ethics committee stage. Children are commonly seen as vulnerable, unreliable witnesses who need protecting from adults and also themselves, often rendering the unable to take part in research. As Kate Brown (2017) argues, CYP have been vulnerabilised through a move towards protection and governance, and away from relating and human agency. In a bid to maintain the innocence of the child (albeit an unreliable child) the concept of the political child is forbidden.
To unpick these thorny tensions between apparent common-sense safeguarding of CYP, and diminishing democratic agency, it is necessary to consider ontologies and epistemologies. How do we consider our research subjects and their abilities and rights to change the world? How do we value co-created knowledge and the resulting challenges such work might present? As we address these questions, we are then able to look to the implications for institutional ethical guidelines and practices.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings
Our research demonstrates that, whilst ethical approval processes were straightforward with our research involving adults, they proved challenging when seeking permission for CYP to be explicitly acknowledged as co-researchers and agents of change. Ethics committee definitions of research with CYP were based on interventionist, scientific and individualistic approaches that sought to “do to’ CYP, rather than the relational, democratic and participatory approaches that inform this research.

We wish to make the case that reflecting upon the issues that arise during “ethics in practice” (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004, p. 269) is essential in connecting rights and reality in educational research with CYP. More needs to be done to theorise research ethics differently, relationally and democratically. Using relational theory (Holland et al, 1998) can be used to help better understand CYP and researcher participant identities in research ethics contexts and to what extent the research relationships are being constituted to generate ‘relational goods’, such as interpersonal trust, emotional support, care and social influence, (Cordelli, 2015) that are required for a more reciprocal relationship between the researcher and CYP. In addition, Rancière’s (2010; 2014) thinking around dissensus reminds us that disruption to the common sense is necessary if we are to further democracy.

Our findings show that connecting rights and reality in educational research with CYP requires theoretical approaches that challenge notions of the child or young person as “the not yet” (Biesta, 2011, p543 ) positioning children and young people as ‘citizens of now’, who need to be actively engaged in emancipatory discussions and debates on research ethical processes that affect them.

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Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Other)
Status: Unpublished
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
School/Department: School of Education, Language and Psychology
URI: https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/id/eprint/9660

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