Researching Pupils in Education

Educational researchers might reasonably expect to have to conduct research with pupils at some in their careers, given that they are at the centre of the education system.

This post outlines some the challenges researchers may face when researching pupils in the context of education. It has been primarily written for students of A-level sociology.

Why you might want to research pupils?

The whole education system is based around the pupils. Without them there are no teachers, no OFSTED, no exams, no system! So it makes sense to ask them their opinions on education from time to time!

Pupils tend to have lower status than staff in the system, so giving them a voice is ethically sound!

Schools and pupils want to portray themselves in a good light, so the portrayals they give of their institutions may not be accurate.

Failing students often don’t get a voice, they probably don’t want to talk about education, and so finding out what they think about education might be especially valuable.

The problems of researching pupils

If conducting research within schools, senior leaders and teachers may select which students researchers get to collect data from, possibly selecting some of the better behaved students to portray the school in a positive light.

Once they have gained access, pupils may be reluctant to open up to researchers because they are not used to interacting with any adults other than their parents and teachers.

Younger pupils will be less able to grasp the meaning of key concepts such as social class, or even ‘occupation’, so researchers will have to think carefully about how they might operationalise concepts so that students can understand them.

The reading ability of younger learners may mean that questionnaires will not be a suitable method of investigating their attitudes, so interviews or observations will probably be more appropriate methods, and these tend to be more time consuming.

Speech codes may be a barrier to a researcher gaining trust and understanding from certain groups of students.

Younger pupils may not be able to fully understand the purpose of the research, so it may not be possible to gain fully informed consent from them.

The attitudes pupils have towards the power structure of the school may influence the validity of the data the researcher gets. A pro-school student may be reluctant to criticise the school, whereas anti-school students may do so even if their criticisms are invalid. The later is a criticism that has been made of David Gilborn’s research on Teacher Racism.

Given the general status of children as ‘vulnerable’ researchers need to take special care that students will not suffer any unnecessary harm (such as stress) during the research process.

Because of their vulnerability status, there are going to be gatekeepers to get through in order to research pupils – probably both parents, and teachers, before any research with pupils can take place.

Researchers will have to work within Child Protection legislation – they will need criminal record checks in advance, and ensure that no personal data collected is shared.

It is highly unlikely that researchers would be allowed to spend any time alone with students today, like Paul Willis was able to do for 18 months back in the 1970s! So Participant Observation as a method is probably out of the question today.

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