Who is capable?

Having made a commitment to protect the rights of children Benny must now wrestle with the challenges of being a research student.

Having made a commitment to protect the rights of children Benny must now wrestle with the challenges of being a research student.


Research seminars are a regular feature of life in the Centre for Education and Research at the University of Northampton. These provide opportunities for researchers, including students to present their work in progress and to encourage discussion of ideas related to their studies. They are attended by a gathering of experienced and novice researchers who are keen to learn from each other and share issues and ideas.

On Friday, one of our PhD students, Benny from India presented aspects of his research on the use and efficacy of learning mentors in primary schools. Benny’s research is interesting and the presentation was engaging, but whilst the subject of his study held the attention of his audience, comprising students and researchers from the UK, Viet Nam, China, Hungary and Kenya, it was a specific issue related to data collection and research ethics that provoked much discussion. The debate began with a consideration of the challenges of obtaining informed consent from research participants before proceeding to interview them or observe them in class. Benny described the frustration that many of us have felt when he has obtained the consent of a parent to interview their child, but then the child refuses to give their own consent and therefore the observation or interview cannot proceed.

This is not an unfamiliar issue, but rather one that comes up all the time. The argument is usually put that children are minors and that if we have the consent of their parents it is perfectly OK to conduct and interview for research purposes.  This is of course true, if we have parental consent the researcher can interview or observe the child. However, there is a further consideration here and one that I (along with many other researchers) believe to be important.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that

“Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

Every member state of the United Nations with the notable exceptions of the United States of America and Somalia signed up to this agreement. This being the case I believe that as researchers and teachers we should recognise the spirit and intention of the convention and try to abide by its principles.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was written in the knowledge that children are vulnerable and in some circumstances have been ignored or even abused by people in positions of authority. Its intention is clearly to afford protection to children but also to instil respect for their views, and ensure that they are encouraged to understand those actions that might affect them. For this reason I take a particular view and express to my students the belief that children need to be consulted and their consent obtained before we involve them in research. Though we often debate this point it is one that most educational researchers appear happy to accept because they too are concerned for the wellbeing of children. However, there is one part of article 12 that always gives cause for concern and confusion.

The article emphasises that “the child who is capable of forming his or her own views” should be consulted and recommends that due consideration must be given to the “age and maturity of the child.” These are clauses that I often find problematic. They usually result in my asking the question “who is capable?” For those of us working in the area of inclusive education, a commitment to full participation of the child is important and we would like to think that we take all appropriate measures to ensure that they are fully included in all aspects of decision making that concern them.  Yet it is not only my students like Benny, who find this issue challenging. There are many complications surrounding this matter, but two of the most common issues I will raise here.

Firstly, when conducting research that involves children who may have learning difficulties, challenges with communication or of social adjustment how can we be sure that they understand what we are asking when we seek consent? Over a number of years some of my research has involved young people with multiple disabilities and complex needs. Some of these children who have no spoken language, and severe cognitive impairments are dependent upon adults for all of their basic needs. Are such children capable of giving their consent to be a part of my project? If so, how do we go about obtaining their informed consent? I do not believe that there is a simple answer to these questions; however, I do believe that there are principles that may guide us in this area. At the outset I think it important that we assume that all children can understand far more than they are often given credit for. It is important as researchers that we err on the side of caution and take every measure possible to ensure that each child is consulted and is comfortable with the decisions we make. For those with the most complex needs we should seek the assistance of those who know the child best and may therefore have ways of communicating with them that we cannot hope to achieve in a limited period of time. We need to take the advice of these more knowledgeable individuals to ensure that the work that we are doing is not causing stress or in any way discomforting the children at the centre of our work. For pupils with such complex needs the consent of parents or carers is particularly critical to our work, but we need others who know the child well to be around at all stages of the research to be sure that we are not inadvertently causing any distress to the individual.

The second issue (there are of course others), relates to the notions of age and maturity. My colleague Jane Murray recently completed an interesting study of children as researchers. Her work involved observing children in nursery settings to investigate their powers of inquiry and investigation of their world. Her study, and that of others working in this field suggests that very young children have a refined sense of justice and that they are able to demonstrate both verbally and in other ways that they have opinions and beliefs. We should not therefore assume that there is an age after which we should believe that children are capable. The onus is upon us as researchers to find ways to engage children in our research and to ensure that we work not only within the recommendations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but that we actually challenge the narrow views of capability and maturity that may afford an escape clause to those who wish to deny the application of these rights in respect of a vulnerable population.

Benny is not the first to wrestle with these issues, neither will he be the last!