Whilst recognising the importance of respecting pupils, schools very rarely seek the consent of pupils before requesting the involvement of professionals. Both schools and the Educational Psychology profession need to find better ways of addressing this.
This article focuses on consent from pupils for the involvement of an Educational psychologist (EP), as that is my area of experience, but the ethics and principles apply to many other aspects of school life.
Of the thousands of children and young people who are ushered into rooms with Educational Psychologists each year, how many really understand what is going on? How many have been asked if they consult one involvement? This is something that has troubled me many times over my career, and which I feel needs discussing in schools at a policy level.
Children’s rights to involvement in decision-making
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states very clearly that children have the right to be involved in all decisions that affect them. As far as medical treatment is concerned, the involvement of even very young children in collaborative decision-making around treatment programmes has been shown to be both desirable and beneficial. The competence of a child, not their age, is the deciding factor in law for children and young people being able to make decisions about medical treatment.
In health matters, the consent of young people is taken very seriously. A girl as young as 12 can, if considered ‘Gillick competent’, give consent to an abortion without her parents knowledge, for example. There is a real irony that the same 12 year-olds have no say in who the school or parents involve in discussions about their learning, behaviour and wellbeing. In my career as an educational psychologist I have rarely come across a school that has a written policy on pupil involvement in decision-making, let alone on seeking pupil consent. At a time when there is much discussion about pupils taking responsibility for their own learning and behaviour, maybe it is time to have a discussion with pupils about when and how they can become involved in decisions regarding their learning, mental health and conduct.
Increased staff power
When a child or young person enters the school grounds, they could be forgiven for thinking that they have no right to informed consent. Consider the statutory powers that school staff have to search pupils and their possessions for ‘any item’ without consent, remove their devices and delete content, when given ‘reasonable grounds’ that a pupil might have prohibited link. Pupils have told me that even if they have never been searched themselves, the fact that it could and does happen to their peers makes them feel like they have no rights.
Requesting EP involvement
It may happen differently in other places, but in most places where I have worked as an EP the consent around work concerning individual pupils goes something like this:
- The EP and link member of staff (usually a Special Needs/Inclusion coordinator, Head Teacher or Assistant/Deputy Head) meet with the EP to plan the term’s work.
- During this meeting, a number of pupils are discussed ‘anonymously’ with the EP so that agreement can be reached about the relevance of EP involvement and how this might best be carried out.
- If agreed that the EP needs to either meet the pupil, or collect information about them through meetings with their parents or school staff, then the school obtain written parental consent before anything further is agreed.
- Most EP Services now have a booklet for pupils describing who the EP is and what they do. My most recent service encouraged us to personalise this with our name and photograph.
I was discussing this process a while back with a family member in her teens and she asked, ‘Do you mean that the pupil doesn’t have a say in whether you are involved or not?’ I confirmed that this was the case and she was astounded and appalled.
I reassured her that I do sometimes come across teachers who prepare pupils well and involve them in a detailed discussion about the EP’s role and describe the purpose of their involvement, introducing them and giving the pupil time to ask questions about why the school and parents want an EP to see them, and the possible outcomes. But I’d say that too often all a busy teacher can manage is an informal ‘handover’ of pupil to professional, with a cursory introduction. Even when I have given schools my personalised introduction sheet, I frequently found that these had not been passed on to pupils. As this happens far too often, it does suggest that the school culture where pupils are informed and consent sought is far from being the norm.
Say ‘Hello’ to my friend
I regret to report that I have also witnessed numerous occasions where a pupil has been called out of class and has no idea why. I find that nobody has spoken to them about my visit. This is often accompanied by the excuse that ‘Their parents said they had gone over things with them.’ After experiencing a number of these, I made sure that I explicitly checked beforehand what was going to be said to the pupil about my involvement and by whom, and that the school had copies of the sheet describing my role. Despite this, I still had some teachers who said, ’No I haven’t spoken to them, but they’ll be fine. She’s used to people coming in to see her.’ I have also had more than one Special Needs Coordinator introduce me as ‘This is my friend, Geraldine.’ What a sinister idea that a teacher introduces you to their ‘friend’ who then expects you to go off with them to some room or other!
In the 32 years I have been working with schools I have found very few who offer a pupil the option to agree or decline the involvement of an EP, and it takes a strong-willed pupil to refuse point blank to meet a professional in a school culture where pupils just do as they are told. Such a rights-denying culture makes it all the more important that visiting professionals stick to the ethical principles of their professions (in for EPs this would be the British Psychological Society ethical guidelines.)
Take responsibility for your own introduction
I have concluded that, irrespective of how a pupil has been prepared for meeting a visiting professional, it is best for the professional to assume that nothing has been said, and introduce himself or herself in front of the teacher who brought the pupil to them, tell them who you are and why you are there.
The information and options schools and professionals can give children and young people for whom a school has sought their involvement includes the following:
- Tell them who has requested your involvement and why;
- Tell them what you already know about them and ask for their opinion on these descriptions and accounts;
- Tell them if you plan to write a report or notes of your meeting, who will get a copy, and what it might contain;
- Ask them how they would like your report or notes to be used, and if there is something they want to communicate or change through that report;
- Ask them if they are happy with the room that has been allocated and if they want the door open or closed;
- Tell them the planned length of your meeting and the agenda;
- Make it clear that you are not going to hold them against their will and they are free to leave at any time. Tell them they can either say, ‘I’d like to leave now’ or just get up and go, and you won’t try to stop them – many schools don’t like this, but pupils have told me that just knowing they can leave helped them to stay;
- Make sure any note-taking is transparent and agree the wording with the pupil as you go along and at the end. So, for example, you might say, ‘The way you described that is so vivid, can I use those words in my report?’, or, ‘Would it be okay to write something about that, remembering that your parents and teachers are going to read this?’
- Objectives and recommendations are negotiated. This might sound an odd thing to do for younger pupils, but actually, if they don’t understand the changes being discussed by everybody else, or don’t want to do them, then it might make a nonsense of your recommendations.
My young relative had some suggestions. Why don’t EPs set up tables in the playground, like they do on the TV programme Embarrassing Bodies open clinic, and interact with pupils to talk about what EPs do, and invite pupils to request our involvement themselves. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a school who was prepared to use their contracted EP time in this way, so never tried it out.
I’d be interested to hear what you think.
How do you get consent or agreement from pupils for the involvement of outside professionals?