Ethical issues

Negotiating access to schools

Negotiating access to schools, whether as intervention schools to receive the domestic abuse prevention programme, Relationships without Fear (RwF) or as control schools, was a difficult process and required persistence on the part of the researchers. It was often difficult to ensure that information regarding both the RwF programme and the research was reaching key individuals (for example, headteachers and Personal Social Health Education coordinators) who would ultimately allow us to conduct the research, getting beyond the school receptionist, acting as a gatekeeper, to speak to these decision-makers was often difficult. Data collection in the schools was linked to the delivery of the RwF programme and the recruitment of schools into the study was initially reliant on the organisation, Arch, delivering the programme and on the willingness of schools to have the programme delivered in school. Letters were sent to all schools within North Staffordshire, the catchment area of Arch. These letters set out the details of the programme, described the research remit and offered a £100 voucher to the school as an incentive for taking part. Initial uptake was slow, however, we can only speculate over the reasons for this as very little feedback was received from the schools that were unwilling to receive the programme. We can imagine that in many cases this was to do with an already over-crowded curriculum, but in some cases it may also have been to do with an unwillingness to engage with the difficult topics likely to come up in a domestic abuse prevention programme. In response to the limited uptake, the research team took over some responsibility for recruiting intervention schools, revising the invitation documents that were initially sent out to the schools, to suggest additional incentives for participating. This included outlining ways in which receiving the programme and taking part in the research would help the school complete their Ofsted self-evaluation form (SEF) and we also offered to provide reports of findings linked to individual schools. This led to an increased uptake of the programme by the local schools, seven schools in total agreeing to have the programme delivered to Year 9 pupils.

Once the schools receiving the programme had been identified, we were able to recruit control group schools. We aimed to match the intervention schools as closely as possible with control schools that were similar in terms of location, size (number of pupils), the proportion of students receiving free school meals, from minority ethnic backgrounds and with special educational needs (information obtained from the schools’ most recent Ofsted reports). Recruitment of control schools did not prove as difficult as the intervention schools perhaps because less time and commitment was required from the control schools (a questionnaire at two time points rather than the six one-hour sessions required by the RwF programme plus administering the questionnaire on three occasions). Six control schools were recruited, with one school acting as a control school for two intervention schools in which a relatively small number of classes had received the programme. One of the headteachers of the schools that did decline to participate (of which there were only two) stated that this was because the research would interfere with the primary aim of schooling to educate children.

Once we had recruited schools, difficulties did persist, however, in arranging appropriate times in which to deliver the programme and/or administer the questionnaires. Once the agreement of the school had been attained, contacting individual teachers who were assigned responsibility to liaise with the research team proved difficult, particularly given that the majority of their time is spent in the classroom. During periods close to school examinations, the administration of questionnaires was considered to take up valuable time. Nonetheless, the questionnaires were administered at all the appropriate time points with the cooperation of key members of school staff.

Throughout the period of research and subsequently, it was important to maintain relationships with the participating schools. Each school received a report on the findings related to their own pupils which detailed the extent of their experiences of domestic abuse and their attitudes towards domestic violence (in some cases leading control schools to request the domestic abuse prevention programme). Additionally, members of the research team have returned to present some findings and/or deliver research methods classes to participating schools.

Informed Consent

The administration of the Attitudes towards Domestic Violence (ADV) questionnaire raised a number of important ethical considerations, particularly relating to the sensitive nature of the research and asking young people to disclose personal experiences. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides an extensive right for the child to be heard except in the most exceptional circumstances, a principle which is also reflected in case law in England and Wales. By reflecting the child’s right to independent expression, the current study upheld key principles of both the 1989 Children Act and the UN CRC. There is a case to be made that as pupils who participated in the research were aged 13-14 years, and through seeking the consent of headteachers and the pupils themselves, it was not also necessary to seek consent from parents. We knew that by seeking consent from parents it was possible that some parents may opt their children out of the research (for whatever reason) but the children may really want to take part. Whilst we wanted to respect the parent’s decision, it could be argued that the child has the right to express his/her views. As noted by Alderson (2004), gatekeepers (including parents) can protect but also silence and exclude children.

This phase of the From Boys to Men study entailed a three-stage consent process (Carroll-Lind et al., 2006) whereby once the informed consent of the school was attained to conduct the research, consent was also sought from parents/carers and school pupils. Accessing young people’s views on violence, and in particular their own experiences of violence, often meets with challenges, not least because of the ethical issues involved, and seeking parental consent can present as a significant barrier. Seeking opt in parental consent, where parents/carers must return a consent form authorising their child’s participation in the research, runs the risk of a low response rate, thus making the current study virtually impossible to conduct. Our assumption was that, based on the characteristics of parents who do not typically return response slips, parents of children living with abuse would be over-represented among that group but a small and non-representative sample would not be acceptable for this study. More generally, however, apathy, inertia and lack of motivation are more common reasons why parents do not opt their children in than active refusal (Ellickson & Hawes, 1989). One solution, as argued by Carroll-Lind et al. (2006), is to suspend usual parental consent by means of passive consent (use of the opt-out method). This means that parents only had to send a form back if they did not wish their child to take part. This method was typically used by schools when requesting parental consent for engagement in extra-curricular programmes or school trips so it was adhering to the schools’ usual practice and did not meet any challenges. Information sheets and consent forms were sent to parents/carers via the school. Information sheets were explicit about the aims of the research in that we would ask pupils about their attitudes towards and experiences of domestic abuse. However, we did try to reassure parents that responses could not be traced back to individual children or their families. This was a challenging project addressing issues that are not clear cut, but we believe that we were able to strike an appropriate balance.

In line with other studies, we found that the young people enjoyed taking part in the research and appreciated the opportunity to report on an issue that is important to them. In total, 19 children were opted out of the research by their parents (16 male, 3 female) and 28 participants opted out themselves (17 male and 11 female). Thus, more girls than boys participated in our study because more boys than girls were opted out of the research by their parents or opted out themselves. The reasons for this can only be speculated about, but it is possible that some boys were opted out because they or their parents did not wish for them to disclose experiences of abuse perpetration they were known to have had. It will be necessary for future studies to ensure that non-completions are not skewing results.

Asking young people about their experiences of abuse and help-seeking

As well as completing the ADV questionnaire, pupils also responded to questions about their experiences of domestic abuse, as victims, perpetrators and as witnesses of abuse in their own homes. In direct contrast to the research by Barter and colleagues (2009), we decided to use the term ‘dating’ in the questionnaire because young people aged 13-14 years in Staffordshire do use this term; furthermore they talk about ‘boyfriends’ and ‘girlfriends’ when referring to their own intimate relationships, rather than ‘partners’, and so using the term ‘partner exploitation and violence was not deemed appropriate.  Through consulting with our local partner organisations and a group of young people through the local NSPCC, we asked the young people to think about ‘people you have dated, and past or current boyfriends or girlfriends’. Participants were then asked to consider the adults who look after them at home, ‘e.g your parents, stepparents, guardians or foster carers’ and questions that are about ‘things that can happen between two partners in a relationship’.

The survey questions, procedures and ethical guidelines were developed through close consultation with user groups of young people, e.g. a local Youth Parliament and a group of young people known to practitioners within the local NSPCC, and also with members of our multi-agency steering group. We took, as our starting point, questions that were very similar to those used in the NSPCC survey by Barter and colleagues regarding physical, sexual and emotional forms of abuse, and modified them as we were advised by the young people and practitioners we consulted.

For victimisation and perpetration, participants were asked to consider ten different behaviours in terms of whether this had happened to them or whether they had ever done it themselves: ‘Never’, ‘Once’ or ‘More than once’. For witnessing abuse there were eight different behaviours the same as for the previous sections, but we omitted the questions about sexual abuse. Again, there were three categories: ‘Never’, ‘Once’ and ‘More than once’. If they indicated that it had happened, they were asked to indicate whether it had happened in the last 12 months (Yes or No).

In our research it was necessary to ask the young people to self-report on their experiences of abuse, their attitudes to domestic violence and their help-seeking behaviour. Problems with self-report data are well known, especially the tendency for participants to give a socially desirable response, rather than what is true for them. Of course it is also possible that some of our participants gave exaggerated negative responses to be seen as undesirable. However, self-report was the only reasonable option since few incidents are witnessed by others (Foshee et al., 2004). It is clear that we were asking the young people some very sensitive questions. Even though we told them their responses were anonymous and we would not be showing the questionnaires to anyone else, concerns could have remained. We have no way of validating the young people’s responses and so all we can do is acknowledge the potential limitations of the research method. Nevertheless, a self-completed questionnaire has advantages over techniques administered by an interviewer; reports of crime are usually higher with self-completed measures compared to an interview method (Tourangeau and Smith, 1996). A key concern of respondents is whether they can be matched to their responses and this becomes more problematic the more sensitive the questions become (Krohn et al., 2012).

There is still considerable debate in the literature as to whether domestic abuse remains a crime committed predominantly by men against women or whether gender symmetry is the norm (Archer 2000, Gadd et al. 2003, Straus, 2009, Dobash & Dobash, 2012). Much depends on how abuse is defined and its impact measured. Prevalence rates vary considerably and there are mixed findings with respect to gender differences because of the definitions used, the type of instrument employed, the age of the sample, and the criteria used (e.g. frequency and time period considered). Researchers who rely on the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) (Straus, 1980; Straus & Gelles, 1990) typically report equal rates for males and females, or females as perpetrating more abuse and sometimes more severe abuse against partners. However, this measure has been widely criticised for including items that can be interpreted in different ways, with all items treated as equivalent; thus trying to hit a partner and beating up a partner have equal weighting. The CTS also fails to consider the context in which the abuse occurs (Dobash & Dobash, 2012). As noted by Dobash and Dobash (2012),

[Family violence research] conflates acts of violence and aggression and does not examine the context, consequences, motives, intentions and reactions associated with the overall violent event, or the relationships in which the violence occurs (p. 343).

Violence against Women researchers tend to study the context in which the abuse occurs rather than a list of acts. Often they employ more qualitative methods and find that women’s abuse is typically in self-defence or retaliation and in the context of a relationship where they have endured years of physical abuse from a partner (Dobash & Dobash, 2012).

However, a consensus does now seem to be emerging that different methods capture different forms of violence, with what some deem common couple violence perhaps captured using self-report techniques applied to couples (such as the CTS), and what Evan Stark (2009) dubs ‘domestic terrorism’ and ‘coercive control’, a form of abuse perpetrated mostly by men against women, most manifest among those who disclose repeat victimization to victim surveys (Johnson 2006, 2008; Stark 2009). We acknowledge the limitations of our measure in merely assessing whether certain acts had happened devoid of the context in which they occurred. However, motive, context and impact cannot be easily measured in a large-scale survey.

There were also two questions about help-seeking:

  • Suppose a boyfriend/girlfriend ever hit you, how likely would you be to seek help from an adult?
  • Suppose you found out that an adult who looks after you was being hit by their partner, how likely would you be to seek help from an adult outside of your friends and family? (e.g a teacher, school nurse, social worker).

For each question there were four response options:

1= Not at all likely; 2=Not likely; 3=Somewhat likely; 4=Very likely

These questions were not part of the initial proposal but after learning more about the aims of the RwF programme we felt it important to not only assess young people’s attitudes to domestic violence but also their help-seeking behaviour. However, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the single-item help-seeking measures which only captured intentions to seek help in the future (from an adult) and only if they would seek help and not who specifically or where they would seek help from. Furthermore, single items are well known for being unreliable. Subsequent studies will need to move beyond single-item help-seeking measures, in order to take forward the issues our research has raised. Psychological concepts are often not precisely definable and so researchers tend to measure concepts using a variety of measurement items rather than a single item;

The idea is that by using a number of imprecise measures of the concept in question, the aggregate of the measures is likely to be a better measure than any of the constituent individual items (Howitt and Cramer, 2011, p. 253).

The challenges of conducting sensitive research with children in schools

As noted by Berry (2009, p. 93), Researchers studying family violence arguably face some of the most complex ethical dilemmas in conducting social research with children and families. Berry further states that children and young people have been overlooked in surveys of family violence in the past, but there is now widespread recognition that children need to be considered as social actors in their own right and consulted on issues that are important to them.

In-class administration

Children in the intervention group completed the questionnaires in the first and final session of RwF and at three month follow-up; children in the control group schools completed the questionnaires at the same time as the children in the matched intervention schools, at least within one week of each other (but they did not participate at the three-month follow-up).

Before data collection began, it was important to ensure the positive and voluntary collaboration of the participants. This becomes more important when working in classrooms, where children might see the research as another piece of schoolwork or participate (or not) because their friends are participating. Thus, children were asked for their consent. They were told that they did not have to take part if they did not wish to (even if their parents had given their consent) and that they could stop taking part at any time. Alternative activities were provided by the research team for children who did not wish to take part. This was also offered to all pupils once they had completed the questionnaire to enable those students who required more time to complete the questionnaire in silence.

We were not explicit that the questions related to domestic abuse as it was considered that this may impact on the way that pupils answered the questions. However, it was stressed to the children that some of the questions were quite personal and sensitive. They were also reassured that if they were willing to answer the questions, their responses could not be traced back to them as individuals or to their family. However, they were told that if they said something to us face-to-face to suggest that they or someone else was at significant risk of harm, then we would have to pass on our concerns to one of their teachers. They were asked to answer the questions in silence, to keep their answers to themselves and to not look at what the person next to them was doing. After they had completed the questionnaire, they were debriefed and were pointed to appropriate sources of support.

To enable us to match up questionnaire responses, we asked the young people to answer a series of questions on the front page:

  1. What are the last 3 digits of your home telephone number?
  2. What month were you born in?
  3. What was your first pet’s name?

The young people were told,

Your answers to these questions are important because we can match up your responses today with your responses at another time. We do NOT want you to put your name on the questionnaire because some of the questions are quite personal and sensitive. This way, you can know that your responses (about you and your family) will stay anonymous and confidential. This front sheet will be removed from the rest of the questionnaire as soon as possible.

Krohn et al (2012) note the problems of asking participants (particularly adolescents) to self-generate a code and duplicating it from administration to administration. This can result in many cases being lost because it is not possible to match the data. Yet, we found that the young people were good at generating and remembering their code and very few cases were lost because of a failure to match up questionnaires.

Questionnaires were administered on a whole basis, meaning that in some cases groups in excess of 30 pupils were completing the questionnaire at the same time. This raised the potential for young people to discuss their answers with other pupils and issues around maintaining confidentiality if their answers could be viewed by their classmates. We also had to consider the possibility that pupils may have under-reported their experiences in fear of their classmates viewing their answers or may have reported culturally acceptable views (i.e. that hitting a partner is not okay). To minimise this risk, the researcher had to engage in classroom management strategies often aided by a teacher and/or domestic violence worker (in the case of intervention schools) seeking to minimise interaction between pupils. Ideally, we would have administered the questionnaire in smaller groups where the pupils are afforded more space and thus privacy, but this would be difficult to arrange given the constraints of the school-based context.

Pupils were asked to answer the questions in silence, to keep their answers to themselves and to not look at what the person next to them was doing. They were also provided with a blank sheet of paper which they could use to cover their answers from those near to them. After they had completed the questionnaire, they were debriefed and advised if they had been upset in any way that they should talk to someone about how you feel, whether that person is a friend, parent, teacher, or someone else. Each young person received a ChildLine Card and details of Arch, the local domestic abuse service. In the cases of intervention schools, pupils were introduced to Arch staff who they could access for support. In the cases of control schools, Arch staff were available for support if any young person disclosed abuse face to face to a member of the research team. During the course of the research, no pupil in control schools disclosed abuse face to face with members of the research team. In few cases did pupils seek help from Arch staff members.