Maintaining our students’ confidentiality is an important, but potentially complex, aspect of your role as Personal Tutor. There are a number of pieces of legislation that we must be aware of and observe, so you are advised to consult with your Senior Tutor or Postgraduate Tutor if you are unsure of how best to respond to a particular situation. Generally, to avoid problems, you are advised to follow the steps outlined below.
Aspects of confidentiality
Making tutees aware of protocol
As a Personal Tutor you may well have access to sensitive, personal information (for example, relating to disability, medical conditions, personal problems). This obviously requires a high level of confidentiality and tutees should be able to assume that Personal Tutors will respect their wishes regarding confidentiality and disclosure. However, Personal Tutors should be clear that they cannot guarantee complete confidentiality. In the interests of yours and your tutees’ well-being it is really important that you are clear about what you can and can’t offer and that you communicate this to your tutees. You could use a form of words like those below when you first meet your tutees to make them aware of the protocol before issues arise.
"As your Personal Tutor, I will hold what you tell me in confidence, unless we both agree that it would be helpful to disclose relevant details to another member of Imperial staff who is better placed to advise. I am not permitted to maintain confidentiality, however, if there is a significant and immediate risk to your health and safety or that of others."
Some departments have developed alternative approaches to how they manage confidentiality, as outlined in the example below. Your Senior Tutor or Postgraduate Tutor will be able to advise you accordingly.
In practice: Confidentiality and ‘Circle of Care’
The ‘Circle of Care’, an idea introduced by Dr. Andrew McKinley, former Senior Tutor in the Department of Chemistry, refers to the small number of people in the department who the Personal Tutor might want to consult with regarding a tutee's welfare, academic progress etc. It is a way of thinking about how the tutee's confidentiality can be maintained and managed, whilst still drawing on relevant support, and how the tutee is made aware of this. Anything a student tells you should be considered confidential, however it is worth explaining to the students that in some circumstances you will need to take the case to the Senior Tutor, the Departmental Disability Officer or the Director of Undergraduate Studies (for example) in order to provide the student with the best support. Andrew explains: “When I meet with a student I explain to them that anything they tell me will be held in confidence, however that I do need to be able to discuss with those in their ‘circle of care’ and I explain who these people are. I then explain that I will usually check with the students if this is OK with them first, however I will never discuss with anyone outside the 'Circle of Care'.
Keeping confidential records
You are advised to keep a record of your meetings with a tutee. Your department may have a specific form or process to facilitate this. This should be stored confidentially on a password-protected computer. This record might be as simple as:
- Their name and your name
- The date
- A brief overview of the matter(s) discussed
- Actions to be taken by the tutee and/or tutor.
The record might take the form of an email sent as a follow-up to your tutorial, typed up either by the student or you. Reasons for keeping a record include:
- It provides evidence of a problem raised or decision made that may be important but difficult recall at a later date;
- It is a useful aide memoir and point of departure for the next time you both meet;
- It is a useful way to track progress.
To increase confidentiality use initials in correspondence and avoid unnecessary copying in.
Taking a staged approach to disclosure
Sometimes it can be difficult to assist a student without seeking advice or help from someone else at Imperial who has the experience and expertise to help. It is usually best to come to an agreement with the tutee about who specifically their information may be shared with. Even if a tutee is initially reluctant, it is possible for a Personal Tutor to negotiate permission to disclose through raising the tutee's awareness of the short- and long-term advantages and disadvantages of this disclosure. Students can find it difficult and unfamiliar to seek help. It can be beneficial to explore a tutee's concerns about involving others. Where such an agreement has been difficult to reach, we recommend that you confirm it in writing to the tutee.
There may, however, be a few cases where, despite negotiation, the student refuses to agree to further disclosure. Personal Tutors have a duty of reasonable care to their tutees and this must be balanced against the student's right to keep information confidential. Personal Tutors are advised to consult with their Senior Tutor or Postgraduate Tutor in such cases. The identity of the student can be kept anonymous in these conversations. If the decision is reached that further disclosure is essential, it should be kept to the minimum necessary information, including maintaining student anonymity by referring to the student as ‘student X’, for example. If it is decided to maintain confidentiality, it is again helpful to confirm this in writing to the tutee and set out clearly the advice that has been given as to the benefits of further disclosure.
Disclosing information about significant risk
"There are certain circumstances in which tutors should disclose information. These include:
If there is a significant and immediate risk to the health and safety of the student or of others, for example:
- If a student may harm or kill themselves or someone else (tutors have a legal duty to disclose information where the abused is a child).
- If a student has disclosed a medical condition, disability or problem such as alcohol abuse which affects their ability to participate safely in College activities.
- If a student breaks into the email of another, hacks, infects systems with a virus or engages in similar behaviour harmful to College community members. A student should be permitted the opportunity to report themselves (if willing) rather than to be reported.
- If questioned by the police regarding a criminal offence alleged against the student."
(Reading University, 2016)
Thanks to Reading University for permission to use the wording in this section.
Sharing information with external parties
You should not share any information about an Imperial student outside the College without their explicit written consent.
This includes not even disclosing to anyone over the phone that an individual is a student at Imperial College. Assure anyone seeking to make contact with a student that the information will be passed to them if the intended recipient is indeed an Imperial student.
Parents or legal guardians
If you take a call from a parent/guardian about a student, we suggest you bear in mind the following advice:
- Listen sympathetically to their concerns and take the student’s name and department.
- Do not indicate that the student is enrolled at Imperial College.
- If appropriate, check whether the student has given consent to share information with their parent or guardian.
Student's consent denied:
If they have not given consent to share, no information must be given out.
Student's consent given:
Where a student has given consent to share information with parents:
- Verify that the student has actually given consent
- Verify that you are talking to the parent – check student’s home address or date of birth
- Depending on the circumstances, you might suggest that the parent/guardian asks their son/daughter to make an appointment with their Personal Tutor or the Senior or Postgraduate Tutor to discuss any concerns. Explain that all meetings with students are confidential but appropriate action or support will be implemented if required.
- Follow up this call with a note on the student’s file
If the call gives you any cause for concern regarding the student or someone else, discuss these concerns to your Senior Tutor or Postgraduate Tutor.
An effective and acceptable approach would be to seek advice from colleagues, including those in the Student Support Services, without revealing the identity of the student in question.
If a tutee has questions about how their information is held, and or can be accessed, the Data Protection guidance and Policy are useful resources.