Permission and approval

Does your research involve children or Children’s Services?

If your research involves children and young people, then one of the key requirements you must meet is to ensure that all researchers who have direct contact with children and young people have Criminal Records Bureau Clearance.

Beyond that fundamental requirement, there is no overarching framework for the approval of research involving children or young people. The approval requirements for research involving children and young people depends on the settings and services through which you are sampling.  Thus, for example, research with children sampled through NHS organisations has to go through NHS approval systems.  Similarly, research involving family court proceedings has to have approval from CAFCASS.

Research in local authority Children’s Services

You will need permission for research involving children’s services in local authorities if your research involves:

  • children, young people and/or families who are past or present users of children’s services (e.g. a school, a children’s centre, a children’s home, a social services department); and/or
  • staff who are (or have been) employed or contracted by the local authority (e.g. a teacher, social worker, family support worker, nursery worker);
  • data, records or case files held by the local authority.

Your research may require at least two forms of approval:

(1) Permission from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)

(2) Local authority research governance approval.

You are also likely to need to negotiate permission from the service that you are studying, or from which you wish to recruit your sample.  ADCS and research governance approvals do not guarantee that you will get permission from the gatekeepers who govern access to your sample.  Securing these permissions can be a very slow process, and you need to allow plenty of time for this stage of the work.

Approval from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)

If your research involves less than four local authority Children’s Services departments, then you do not need approval from ADCS, but can make a direct approach to the local authorities where you hope to do research.

If your research involves four or more local authority Children’s Services departments, then you need to get permission from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).  This approval process is not ethics review.  ADCS guidelines state that the purpose of the review is to check that projects are worthwhile, and reflect the main concerns of departments.    As with the equivalent system within the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), the system is a response to concern that local authorities get very many requests to take part in research. So you must NOT approach Children’s Services departments directly before you have ADCS approval.

To apply for ADCS approval, you need to fill out the application form on their website, and send it with a payment.  The size of the payment depends on the scale (in terms of size of budget) of your project.  You can find the application form and clear and helpful guidelines on making an application on the ADCS Research Group webpage, which also has information about projects they have approved.

Making an approach to a local authority Children’s Services department

ADCS approval does not mean that a local authority has to take part in your research - they can still decline, for example, if your work does not fit with their strategic priorities, if they are just too busy, or if they have any other concerns. 

Nor does ADCS approval avert the need to go through local authority research governance systems.  Not all local authorities have research governance arrangements for children’s services - the picture is very varied.  some do not have any formal systems at all. Some have systems that only apply to certain areas - often, social care services - while others have systems that apply across Children’s Services or even across the authority as a whole. Local authorities are likely to vary in whether they will accept research governance approval from another authority.  All of this means that:

  • If you need ADCS approval, make sure you have this before you start to approach Children’s Services departments.
  • You need to check if they have any additional research governance requirements - do this for each local authority you plan to work in.
  • You need to check if you can ‘passport’ approval between authorities - will they accept research governance approval from another local authority?  Keep your fingers crossed they will - otherwise you could have a lot of forms to fill in.
  • All of this has to be done before you can get permission from more immediate gatekeepers - such as the managers of the services you are sampling from (e.g. head teachers, or social service managers).
  • As all of the above suggests, if you are working in local authority Children’s Services, you need to allow plenty of time to get all the different permissions and approvals that you might need.

Local authority research governance approval 

At the time of writing, in 2011, there is currently no national guidance for the governance of research involving children’s services. In the absence of national guidance, many local authority children’s services directorates have developed their own arrangements for research governance .  These are often - but not always - based to some extent on the Department of Health Research Governance Framework, and usually require that you fill in a form, and that you provide evidence of ethics approval. 

There can be quite a lot of variation in these requirements, so you need to check what the requirements are in the local authority or authorities where you hope to do research. 

You may need to apply for research governance approval in more than one local authority - although it is worth asking if you can ‘passport’ approval between authorities, so that you only have to make one application. 

You also need to check whether they will accept your institutional ethics approval (e.g. from your University Ethics Committee), or whether you need to secure a different ethics approval (e.g. from a local authority ethics committee, or even from the Social Care Research Ethics Committee). 

You may also find it useful to look at a report published by the Department for Education in 2010 - Research Governance in Children’s Services: The Scope for New Advice - which describes findings and recommendations from a project that included a survey of local authority governance arrangements, interviews with local authority stakeholders, and a review of relevant academic literature. 

Summing up

Requirements for research involving children’s services can be complex and can vary from one local authority to the next.  Start with ADCS approval (if appropriate) and then try to find out as much as possible in advance of making any formal applications, so that you are prepared for what you need to do.  An informal enquiring email to a local authority research manager might save you time later on. 

Regardless of the specific requirements for your project, there are particular ethics considerations in research that involves children and young people.  It is likely that any ethics committee will scrutinise research with children with particular care, because they are generally seen as a potentially vulnerable group, and ethics considerations such as valid consent may require particular attention.  So if you are doing research with children or young people, we recommend that you read our section on research with children, which explores these specific ethics issues in more depth.