Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Getting authorisation to do Research and Evaluation in Schools

A colleague working in an educational NGO asked this question, about working in schools in South Africa:

I just wanted to ask a quick question. Do I need to get permission from the relevant Provincial Department of Education to carry out research in schools if the schools are part of a project we’re running? In other words, the district is aware of us and probably interacting with us?
My answer: 
I've only done research or evaluations in a few Provinces, not all of them, but in all of those Provinces the Education Departments have guidelines for researchers that require you to fill in forms, submit your research proposal (and sometimes evaluation instruments) for review, and also binds you to some promises about the use of your research or evaluation findings. (E.g. the Province may require copies of reports, may require you to present your findings, etc.) Check any of the Provinces' annual reports to see which Director in the Provincial office is in charge of Research, and lodge your enquiry about requirements there, if you can't find details on the Provincial Education Website.

The officials in Education Districts are often not aware of the Provincial requirements, so one might be able to get away without Provincial authorization, but this is a bad idea for at least two reasons: 

* It helps if the Research Directorate in the Provincial Education Department have your details on their database because it promotes use and coordination of research, and
*It can solve a lot of headaches for you should someone complain about your research going forward. 

Since Education in schools is a Provincial competence, I have been unable to get blanket approval from National Education to work in multiple Provinces - so that meant filling in the different forms and providing the different details to the different Provinces, and following up on the outcome of each of these processes.

Besides Provincial approval, some clients might also require that any human subject research gets vetted by a research ethics approval board, like the ones attached to universities, or science councils. I've only dealt with a few of these, but they mostly require you to prove that you have authorization to conduct the research, so the two goes hand in hand.

Of course approval by the Province and Research Ethics Boards are still not all that you need to do to ensure that you conduct your work ethically - Some fields (E.g. Marketing Research - see the ESOMAR guidelines),  have guidelines about ethics... so it would be good to study these and make sure your practice remains above board.

And then this, of course, is also true:

Live one day at a time emphasizing ethics rather than rules.
Wayne Dyer



Anonymous said...


I just can't see how you can initiate a research without any approval by a formal authority. Probably the schools you're working with will trust you but that doesn't guarantee the ethical quality of your initiative. An Ethics review board will !

Have a good day

Gilles Mireault
Quebec Youth center
President of the Ethics review board
Quebec, Canada

Benita Williams said...

Of course review boards still do not guarantee that research conducted will be ethical... it is an additional check in the system but not a guarantee.

Let me share a hypothetcial example to demonstrate how people sometimes end up doing "research" in South African Schools without authorization from the Provincial Research Directorate in an Education Department: An NGO with longstanding relationships in an education district (possibly documented in memoranda of understanding) is asked to do something else, e.g train teachers on content x. The project focus isn't research but training. Then the NGO finds funding from a Corporate CSI unit who also demands an evaluation. The NGO appoints an evaluator who is not attached to a science council or university. The district isn't clear on whether evaluation and research is the same thing, and they don't really worry about the Provincial Research policy... They are just interested in the training part of the project. If the NGO or evaluator asks the district if the existing MOU between the District and NGO covers evaluation activities by the NGO's subcontractor, the answer is affirmative. The evaluation goes ahead with the understanding that the District approved it. Informed consent is obtained from all evaluation participants and the school principals. But the Province did not give authorisation. And no-one reviewed the evaluator's data collection methods.