Should schools be taking consent to teach?

Posted on 29 October 2020

Jonathan Haslam, Director, IEE

Before I started working at the IEE, twelve years ago, I worked for a medicolegal organisation, writing about ethical concepts such as consent, confidentiality, and record-keeping. As I’ve learned more about schools and teaching, I’ve realised the extent to which these issues are also important in education, yet lack the formal profile that they’re given in medicine.

In this post I would like to discuss the role of consent, specifically informed consent, in schools.

I worked on medicolegal issues not long after the Bristol heart scandal, at a time when the culture within medicine was changing. The traditional approach had been that the doctor was in charge of a patient’s care. The patient would “give” the doctor their body, the doctor would treat it, then “give” it back to them. Now medicine was moving towards a partnership approach, where treatment was agreed between the doctor and the patient. The doctor would explain the benefits and risks of particular course(s) of treatment, and the patient would give their informed consent to proceed with a particular course. Guidelines on consent are provided, and enforced, by the General Medical Council.

In education, things seem very different. Any consent that’s taken in schools is limited, usually, to such issues as photography, school trips, and emergency medical treatment. The idea that children and their parents should give their consent to the education that they receive is, if not unknown, certainly rare. I would argue that in schools there is still a strong element of the old saying “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man”. Children are handed over to schools by their parents, and schools and teachers are then primarily responsible for decisions about how children are taught. By choosing a school parents could be said to be giving their implied consent, but that’s a bit of a stretch for such a big decision.

I think the concept of informed consent has a lot to offer, and to frame education in this light might provide benefits for schools, parents and children. Here are some thoughts:

When joining a new school, parents and children would give their consent to being taught in a particular way (the school’s approach), but the notion that this a consensual relationship (the parent and child give their consent to this) shifts the balance of power towards the parent/child. For consent to be informed, the school would need to explain its approach, such that parents and children understood it, and agreed that this would be how they would like to be taught. This more proactive consent might help build commitment and partnership between school and home. The current home-school agreements so often separate out a series of responsibilities and commitments for each party, which I think helps to keep those parties separate. (Patients, for example, wouldn’t be asked to sign a commitment to “take my tablets three times a day as instructed”.)  It puts the partnership between teachers, parents and children at the forefront of the relationship, though the concept of “partnership” is often not clearly defined in education. Schools will often express the importance of working in a partnership with parents, but it’s often not clear what this actually means.

Consent is not a form to be completed, but a conversation, a partnership. Changes in teaching approach, whether for an individual, or at a whole-school level, would be communicated with children and parents. Questions about a change would be treated, not as an objection to be overcome, but as serious and legitimate concerns. It is still a partnership, and neither side can coerce the other. Parents would not be able to force a particular style of teaching onto the school. And at the same time, parents/children would be able to leave a school if they wished, as they can at the moment, of course. I hope that this would improve levels of parental engagement in school. I’m sure that many have been put off by their experience of authoritarian schools, and an emphasis on partnership from the outset might help to break down these barriers.

As with medical treatment, the capacity of children to give their consent will increase as they age. We already see this in many of the changes that happen throughout a child’s school career, but particularly, for example, at the transition to secondary, then sixth form and beyond. An obvious example is whether children give their consent for their work to be shared on social media. Even young children should be able to understand this.

In some ways the differences are subtle, but I think they are important. Some schools are no doubt already doing this, but perhaps don’t frame the relationship in these terms. Informed consent is a different way of thinking about this relationship. To paraphrase the GMC’s guidance, “For a relationship between schools, parents and children to be effective, it should be a partnership based on openness, trust and good communication. Each person has a role to play in making decisions about teaching and learning.”

Thank you to Megan Dixon for her comments on a draft of this post.

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