Promoting a sixth form student research culture

Good news: Extended Project qualification (EPQ) entries were up again this year. The qualification which is equivalent in value to an AS level accredits a substantial piece of research on a topic of a students’ choice, usually culminating in a 5,000 word dissertation. Over the last 5 years, EPQ entries in England have risen from around 5,000 to around 35,000, a seven-fold increase.

This means that more sixth formers are engaging in both primary and secondary research, evaluating their sources, weighing up evidence and arguments from different perspectives and presenting their findings both orally and in writing. They are learning research methods and developing their critical and analytical skills.

In some cases, students are working with others in research teams or collaborating on substantial co-ordinated projects.

The EPQ is one of the few opportunities in the accredited sixth form curriculum where students can choose what to study and in how much breadth or depth. This means students can pursue personal interests, explore connections between their other subjects and in some cases make an original contribution to the sum of human knowledge.

For some, the EPQ is just another qualification, a way of accumulating more UCAS points or having something interesting to say in their personal statement. That could be one explanation for its increasing popularity and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the increasing number of project entries could also be a welcome sign of a growing research culture in our sixth forms.

We worry about the somewhat formulaic nature of our exams, the constrained knowledge and skills they assess and the dangers of a culture of coaching or spoon-feeding students to succeed. This doesn’t necessarily promote deep learning or personal reflection. Encouraging research draws students in a different direction; promoting a culture where we identify problems which concern us and try to work out solutions based on evidence, analysis and reflection. Whether this leads to a full-blown EPQ or simply a well-argued dissertation and/or a powerful oral presentation this is contributing to a genuinely rounded education.

In the language of the Trivium, as popularised by Martin Robinson in his brilliant book Trivium 21c (reviewed here), engaging in research offers students the opportunity to learn all 3 key elements in a single project: grammar (the core knowledge and understanding), dialectic (the ability to question and challenge) and rhetoric (the ability to explain and present to others).

Research projects can also help colleges or schools turn outwards and become a resource for the world around them; a research community ready to engage with, and serve, the wider community. This requires students to understand and confront ‘real world’ challenges whether at a neighbourhood or a global level, to discuss them, research them and apply themselves to addressing obstacles and identifying solutions. This can turn apparently passive students into engaged active citizens is a highly educational process.

At its best, the product of student research projects can be a modern version of the apprentice’s masterpiece; evidence of mastery and skill which can hold its own in the wider world and this could form part of everyone’s sixth form graduation or matriculation. For today’s visual or performing arts students, this evidence could be similar to their current portfolios, artifacts or student devised productions. For students of other disciplines, it might be a student-led community project, social enterprise, publication or the more traditional written essay. Digital platforms offer a great opportunity to share and discuss these products widely and sixth form teachers, university academics, professionals, employers and local residents could all play a part in supporting and assessing student research.

England’s A-level and advanced vocational students need to catch up with their International Baccalaureate Diploma counterparts, all of whom have to produce an extended essay requiring substantial research. We should be aiming to make the development of research skills the norm for all advanced students and increase EPQ numbers further as well as promoting the Higher Project, the intermediate (GCSE level) version, as a stepping-stone.

A number of universities have already committed to supporting the development of a research culture in sixth forms and one way to expand this further could be to create university-led partnerships bringing together several sixth forms and involving research-active academics and university resources.

My analysis of the nearly 33,000  EPQ entries for 2013 drawn from the national performance tables show that these are very unevenly spread with some sixth forms embracing the EPQ and entering significant numbers and many others entering few or none. Out of 2,177 post-16 centres, less than three quarters offered any EPQ and well over half had 10 or fewer entries.

Between them, 86 sixth form colleges, were responsible for 27% of all EPQ entries although they represent only 4% of centres. Just 5 sixth form colleges entered over 3,000 EPQ candidates, more than all 165 private school centres and between them these colleges had a 97% EPQ pass rate. The sixth form college EPQ table is topped by Hills Road in Cambridge with 942 entries and a 98% pass rate.

In London, there was a marked variation in the number of EPQ entries between boroughs with Harrow at the top with 547 (427 of these from St.Dominic’s sixth form college), Bromley, Wandsworth and Sutton all above 200. At the other end: Newham entered 35, Enfield and Lambeth 30 each, Hackney 20 and Tower Hamlets only 7.

One sign that we are successfully promoting a sixth form student research culture across the country would be more consistency in the proportion of students at advanced level entered for the EPQ.

So let’s celebrate the growth of the Extended Project, let’s ensure it continues to grow and let’s help it reach those parts of post-16 provision where it is least used and most needed.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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