'Moral panic' blamed for clampdown on research

Academic fears her work on pupil-teacher relations would fail ethics rules today, says Melanie Newman

April 3, 2008

The author of a research paper about pupil-teacher sexual relationships has spoken out about her experience of the "moral panic" that her research provoked.

Pat Sikes, a reader in qualitative inquiry in the University of Sheffield's School of Education, was bombarded with hate mail and faced calls for her sacking after newspapers misrepresented the research under headlines such as "Teacher-pupil affairs can be a good thing".

She believes that her work might not be given ethical clearance if she were embarking on it today. Other colleagues share her concerns, she told Times Higher Education. There are growing fears among social scientists that universities' ethical procedures are being misapplied to "limit, control and even prevent" important research in sensitive areas, she said.

Her 2006 paper, Scandalous Stories and Dangerous Liaisons: When Female Pupils and Male Teachers Fall in Love, was published after the introduction of legislation making sexual activity between pupils and teachers a criminal offence. It discusses accounts of consensual teacher-pupil relationships and questions the media presentation of teachers as always being predators and pupils as potential victims in need of protection.

Professor Sikes reveals in the paper, published in the journal Sex Education, that she had met her own husband, who was her history teacher, when she was aged 14, although their relationship did not begin until two years later when he was no longer at her school.

Now, in a second paper, published in Qualitative Enquiry in March, she has spoken out about the public reaction to her work.

Professor Sikes said her work was misreported by national newspapers and the education press under headlines such as "Good teaching can be erotic" and "Sex between teachers and pupils 'not all bad'".

"My 83-year-old mother who lives some 80 miles away phoned to say that reporters from the Daily Mail had just been at her door to ask what she thought about her daughter's marriage and work," Professor Sikes says in the follow-up paper.

E-mails arrived from "self-professed Christians" in the US and Canada, accusing her of having a "paedophiliac mentality", comparing her to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and blaming her for Islamic terrorism.

Other e-mails demanding her dismissal were sent to Sheffield's vice-chancellor and her head of department. School friends were offered cash by journalists in return for information about her time as a pupil.

Professor Sikes was also contacted by people, including academics, who offered support because they had experienced similar events.

Elizabeth Atkinson, a reader in social and educational inquiry at the University of Sunderland, found herself at the centre of a similar media storm in March 2007.

Dr Atkinson headed a Government-funded study aimed at familiarising primary-school children with gay relationships, which involved the use of a series of storybooks with gay protagonists. This prompted a Daily Mail report entitled "Four-year-olds will get gay fairy tales at school". The paper quoted the director of a Christian group who described the project as "thoroughly wicked".

"In comparison with some of these people, I got off lightly," said Professor Sikes. While Sheffield was "completely and utterly supportive" of her research, she believes that if she were beginning her work today it might not be given approval.

"Were I to set out now, and from scratch ... I would have to seek ethical clearance and explain how I would protect my informant," she said. "Recent experience suggests that it is possible that I would not have received permission to proceed with the project."

In January 2006, Professor Sikes sought ethical clearance for a project exploring teachers' experiences of being falsely accused of sexual misconduct against pupils.

"One member of the review board was adamant that there is no such thing as a false allegation, and also commented that, even if there were, the research should not be allowed because it might lead to the questioning of children's accounts and was, therefore, abusive," she said.

Professor Sikes is now working with Heather Piper, senior research fellow in education at Manchester Metropolitan University, to collect social science academics' accounts of difficulties with ethics review procedures.

She told Times Higher Education: "Like others in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, we are increasingly concerned about the potential of such procedures to limit and control and even prevent research," she said.

Accounts collected so far suggest that academics are having difficulty obtaining, or are being refused, clearance for topics that are seen as high risk. These include research linking children and sex and those involving research populations defined as vulnerable, such as disabled people, the economically disadvantaged and parents of terminally ill children.

Academics using innovative, qualitative methodologies and forms of re-presentation are also facing problems, Professor Sikes said.

"The growing use of one-size-fits-all ethics review procedures is part of the problem, as is the way in which many models are based on biomedical approaches - which are problematic enough within their own fields."

Dennis Hayes, founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, said that ethics committees had become "the new moral censors in the academy".

"Decisions about what to research were once matters for discussion with your peers. Academics now have to get their ideas past a bureaucracy that polices not only the quality but the content of research.

"They stifle criticism and creativity because challenging ideas have always been thought improper or offensive in some ways."

He added: "Unless academics can ask difficult questions of anyone ... the academy betrays its commitment to the pursuit of truth without fear or favour."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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