Assessing the Usefulness of Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

How useful is secondary qualitative data when researching education? This post considers some of the theoretical, practical and ethical limitations of Public and Personal Documents which are produced in the context of education – such as OFSTED reports, school prospectuses, school reports and messages sent between pupils.  

Public Documents

Personal Documents

Ofsted and Inspection Reports

School Websites

School prospectuses

School policy documents

School text books

School reports on pupils

Pupils written work

Pupils’ and teachers’ diaries

Notes and text messages passed between pupils

Practical Issues with using documents when researching education

Since the 1988 education act many Public documents on education are freely available to the public – OFSTED reports on schools are easily obtainable, and schools publish a wide variety of information about themselves in their prospectuses and on their websites.

Schools also publish a huge variety of policy documents – such as student codes of conducts, equal opportunities policies and information about how they implement every child matters and safeguarding policies – all of which are likely to be made available to researchers on request, since they are a matter of public record. These are useful as they give an account of the ‘official’ picture of schools in Britain from the perspective of management.

Theoretical Issues with using documents when researching education

In terms of validity, while school web sites and prospectuses can be trusted to provide some basic information about what subjects are on offer, GCSE results and extra-curricular activities, the credibility of such sites is undermined by the fact that they produced to advertise the school in a positive light, and all of these web sites put a positive spin on the school or college. For example, although schools are required to publicise their results, they do have some freedom to emphasise the way they report them so they can portray themselves in the best possible light.

To what extent do school web sites provide a valid picture of school life?

Suggested activity: Visit the web sites of your past school and present college – to what extent do they give you an accurate picture of what life was actually like in that school?

Extension activity: Look at the web site from another school in your area. Pick one that is very different in terms of results and so on. Are the impressions you get of the two schools that different, or are they quite similar, which would suggest that school web sites are designed to a formula and really tell you very little about a particular school.

OFSTED reports may provide greater insight into what’s going on in a school than the statistical snap shot of the yearly GCSE results, but OFSTED inspections only last for three days, and are typically only done every four years, so it is quite easy for a school to put on an act for this short a period and produce a performance which is better than usual.

Ofsted inspections
Might some schools be able to put on a better performance than usual during a brief OFSTED inspection?

Conversely, there are some schools that feel as if they have been harshly judged by OFSTED inspectors, and question the validity of OFSTED reports, feeling that the grade they’ve been awarded does not reflect the reality of school life. This is partly because OFSTED inspectors only really get to see one lesson by each teacher, which is not representative, but also because the focus of different OFSTED inspectors will be different in different schools, raising the prospect that schools are not being judged by the same standard.

Policy documents produced by schools, such as student codes of conduct might be useful for seeing how schools function in an ideal-world, but they lack validity in that they tell you nothing about how many students actually stick to the code of conduct or what’s done with students who break the code of conduct. If you wanted to get more of an insight into this, a researcher would have to gain access to individual reports of each student, which would be more difficult to obtain.

Representativeness and Public Documents in Educational Research

All schools and colleges are required to publish prospectuses and results, so these should cover a 100% sample of educational institutions, but the same cannot be said of OFSTED reports – schools graded outstanding go into ‘light touch’ mode and may not be observed for several years.

Using Personal Documents to Research Education

Suggested starter activity – Have a browse of this interesting blog – ‘Scenes from the Battleground’ – which has had over a million hits and is written by a teacher. What impression does this give you school life?  How valid and representative do you think it is?

Personal documents in the context of education include school reports on pupils, pupils written work, pupils’ and teachers’ diaries and Notes and text messages passed between pupils

Practical Issues

For a start, these will be very difficult to access. Things like teacher mark books, records of conversations with students, and disciplinary records may not be available because of the ethical requirement to safeguard children’s privacy. The same could also be true of the written work of pupils.

Where private messages and texts are concerned, it is unlikely that researchers will be allowed access to students personal mobile phones or tablets, and even if they could gain access, threads of conversation may have been deleted shortly after they took place, and the more ‘anti-school’ such messages are, the more likely they are to have been deleted.

Validity and Personal Documents

The kind of personal documents which are readily available are likely to be of a public nature (social media accounts for example) and because they are public, they would have been subjected to impression management so they are acceptable – so while this can give us an insight into what teachers and staff think is socially acceptable, using these to give us a picture of what people actually think about school life is problematic. The more ‘personal’ and private a document is, then the higher the validity is likely to be – however, the number of people who write down in-depth personal accounts of their school experiences is tiny.


If one could gain access to social media accounts and personal messaging services, representativeness should be good as the majority of students have access and make use of these services.

As mentioned above, hardly anyone keeps diaries any more, and so representativeness here is a problem.

If a researcher is lucky enough to gain access to disciplinary records, these may not be representative of the actual underlying patterns of student disobedience – teacher bias may increase the number of certain types of students who have undergone disciplinary procedures.

Ethical Issues when using public and private documents in educational research

There are no particular ethical problems with using publicly produced documents,

When using private or personal documents, there are some ethical concerns. If the researcher is given access to teacher mark books, records of conversations with students, and disciplinary records this won’t necessarily be with the informed consent of the pupils for example.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Social Research

The Strengths and Limitations of Education Statistics


Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

This post provides a brief overview of Positivist Research Methods, which consist of a scientific approach to social research using quantitative data to ensure objectivity and reliability. (In contrast to the Interpretivist approach to research which favors qualitative data.)


The historical context of Positivism is that it emerged out of The Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution….

The Enlightenment  refers to a period of European history spanning from 1650 to 1800. During this time, the authority of the church was challenged as people started to believe that knowledge should be derived from science rather than from God. The Enlightenment witnessed the birth of modern science which lead to massive social changes. The following three core beliefs (there were others too!) emerged out of The Enlightenment:

  • Underlying laws explained how the universe and society work (wasn’t just God’s will)
    Scientific study could reveal these laws.
  • All men could understand these laws (unlike religious belief – God’s will is unknowable)
  • Laws could be applied to society to improve it (the belief in progress and the pursuit of happiness).

The Enlightenment, Industrialisation’, ‘Progress’ and the Birth of Sociology

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of new scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Most notably for students of Sociology, scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which in turn lead to industrialisation, or the growth of factory based production and the building of such things as railways.

This in turn lead to much social transformation – such as Urbanisation and the growth of what Marxists called the Proletariat. Many commentators from the early 19th century onwards were disturbed by the contradiction between the huge advances, or progress being made in science and industry and the apparent worsening of the lives of the majority. As hundreds of thousands of people flooded into expanding industrial city centres such as Manchester and elsewhere in Britain and Europe, these new urban centres were plagued with new social problems – most notably poverty, unemployment, and social unrest.

It was in this context that August Comte founded Sociology – Comte basically believed that if we can use scientific findings to bring about improvements in production through industrialisation then we can study the social world and figure out how to construct a better society that can combat social problems such as poverty, lack of education and crime.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857): The Founder of Scientific Sociology (aka Positivism)

August Comte - The Founder of Positivist Sociology
August Comte – The Founder of Positivist Sociology

Comte introduced the word “Sociology” in 1839. The term “Sociology” is derived from the Latin word Socius, meaning companion or associate, and the Greek word logos, meaning study or science. Thus, meaning of sociology is the science of society.

Comte concentrated his efforts to determine the nature of human society and the laws and principles underlying its growth and development. He also laboured to establish the methods to be employed in studying social phenomena.

Comte argued that social phenomena can be like physical phenomena copying the methods of natural sciences. He thought that it was time for inquiries into social problems and social phenomena to enter into this last stage. So, he recommended that the study of society be called the science of society, i. e. ‘sociology’.

The General Ideas of Positivism – or The Scientific Method Applied to the Study of Sociology

1. Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.

2. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.

3. Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action

4. Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.

5. To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys. Statistical, numerical data is crucial to Positivist research. Positivists need to collect statistical information in order to make comparisons. And in order to uncover general social trends. It is much more difficult to make comparisons and uncover social trends with qualitative data.

6. These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) – Positivism and Quantitative Sociology

Emile Durkheim - Founding Father of Sociology
Emile Durkheim – Founding Father of Sociology

The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte’s philosophy “positivism”, he retained and refined its method. Durkheim believed that sociology should be able to predict accurately the effect of particular changes in social organisation such as an increase in unemployment or a change in the education system.

Durkheim believed the primary means of researching society should be the Comparative Method which involves comparing groups and looking for correlations or relationships between 2 or more variables. This method essentially seeks to establish the cause and effect relationships in society by comparing variables.

Durkheim’s Study of Suicide (1897)

Durkheim chose to study suicide because he thought that if he could prove that suicide, a very personal act, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s method consisted of comparing the incidence of various social factors with number of cases of suicide.  Durkheim did this work so well, that seventy years later his study was still being cited in textbooks as an excellent example of research methodology

The starting-point for Durkheim was a close analysis of the available official statistics, which showed that rates of suicide varied:
• From one country to another – countries experiencing rapid social change had higher suicide rates.
• Between different social groups – The divorced had higher suicide rates than the married.
• Between different religious groups – Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics

Durkheim noted that these rates were relatively stable over time for each group. The rates may have gone up or down, but the rates remained stable relative to each other. Durkheim theorised that if suicide was an entirely individual matter, untouched by the influence of social factors, it would be an astonishing coincidence if these statistical patterns remained so constant over a long period of time.  Entirely individual decisions should lead to a random pattern.

Durkheim used his data to derive his now famous theory – that suicide rates increase when there is too little or too much social regulation or integration. Social Regulation is the extent to which there are clear norms and values in a society, while social integration is the extent to which people belong to society.

Even though this study is now almost 120 years old it remains the case that suicide rates still vary according to the levels of social integration and regulation.

Positivism and Social Facts
Durkheim argued that social trends are ‘social facts’ – they are real phenomena which exist independently of the individuals who make them up. He claimed that by if sociology limited itself to the study of social facts it could be more objective. He argued that these facts constrain individuals and help us to make predictions about the way societies change and evolve.

Some Criticisms of the Positivist Approach to Social Research

  • Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
  • Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
  • The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
  • By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

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Research Methods Coverv3
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Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview

Further Reading 

S Cool – Positivism (click through for link to Positivism)

The Open University – Positivism 

The Open University – Interpretivism

Trends in Family and Household Diversity

Trends in Reconstituted Families

  • In 2011 there were 544,000 step families with dependent children in England and Wales.
  • This means that 11% of couple families with dependent children were step families.
  • The Number of step families has increased since the 1950s.
  • However, the number of step families has declined recently dropping from 631,000 in 2001 to just 544,000 in 2011.
  • If there is only one biological parent in the step-family, that parent is the mother rather than the father in 90% of cases.

Trends in Lone Parent Households

  • There were nearly 2.0 million lone parents with dependent children in the UK in 2012, a figure which has grown significantly from 1.6 million in 1996.
  • In 2012, women accounted for 91 per cent of lone parents with dependent children and men the remaining 9 per cent. These percentages have changed little since 1996.

Trends in Single Person Households

  • In the UK, 34% of households have one person living in them.
  • According to Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 – an increase of around 80% in 15 years.

Trends in ‘Kidult’ Households

  • According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2011, nearly 3.0 million adults aged between 20 and 34 were living with a parent or parents, an increase of almost half a million, or 20 per cent, since 1997.
  • This means that nearly 1/3 men and 1/7 women in the UK now live with their parents.

Trends in Multigenerational Households

  • The ONS doesn’t collect data on ‘multigenerational households’, but it does collect data on ‘concealed families’, a closely related concept.
  • The latest census analysis reveals there were 289,000 concealed families in 2011, making up 1.8% of all families (15.8 million) in England and Wales. A concealed family is a family living in a multi-family household, in addition to the primary family.

Related Post

Explaining the increase in family diversity – part 1 of 3