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Ethical Research Involving Children

Passive or Active Consent

I am conducting fire research in primary schools looking specifically at evacuation. This involves observing and recording on camera, fire drills which are conducted in the schools. The videos are then analysed to provide data on evacuation dynamics. I will have no active role in the evacuations as the teachers shall remain in control of each class throughout and they will conduct the drill in accordance with school procedures.
As the research is non-evasive and defined as less than minimal psychological and physical risk I am proposing the passive consent method. This would be in accordance with school policy for the use of photographs taken at school events, etc. All gatekeepers are happy with my approach

This has been questioned by my ethics committee who are looking for active consent. The big problem being that return rates for active consent in schools could be lower than 50% and will present a significant administration burden to the schools who have provided access by good will.

All comments are welcome.


  • eric

    July 22, 2015

    Thanks for posing this question to the Forum. Consent remains one of the most heavily debated topics in research involving children. Informed, active consent is usually recommended. However, in your context it will clearly be very difficult to observe typical fire evacuation procedures if you are only able to observe a small number of pupils. And as you note, your research would generally be considered low risk to participants, provided any video footage is gathered viewed, stored and destroyed respectfully and securely. Perhaps your Ethics Review Board is asking you simply to more fully justify your choice of passive consent to ensure you have fully considered the ethical implications (rather than just the practical implications)? You could look over the Informed Consent and Getting Started sections of the ERIC compendium for further advice. These might also act as a useful tool for further discussion with your Ethics Review Board.

  • Julia Truscott

    August 1, 2015

    Another way you could perhaps try to approach this, which helps to honour the UN convention on the rights of the child, might be to seek passive parental consent to approach the children themselves to seek active consent. So create an information sheet for parents about the study with an ‘opt-out’ form. At school, ahead of time and / or on the day of the research, you would then discuss the study with each class and seek active verbal or written consent from all children whose parents have not ‘opted out’. What do others think?

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