Valuing student research

The continuing growth of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in England’s sixth forms is a sign that students, teachers, universities and employers value what it offers. However, less than 10% of advanced level sixth formers have the opportunity to achieve it and many are in sixth forms where it isn’t offered.

The 35,000 EPQ entries in 2014 represent a 6% increase over the previous year and there has been a seven-fold increase over the past 5 years. Nationally, 57% of EPQ entries come from over 1,200 school sixth forms, 33% of entries come from around 200 colleges (with sixth form colleges accounting for the great majority) and 300 private fee-charging schools accounting for around 11%.

The top 10 centres by size are all sixth form colleges and for the second year running, the list is headed by Hills Road Sixth Form College with 958 EPQ entries. 86 sixth form colleges entered nearly 3 times more EPQ candidates than all the 300 or so private schools who had candidates.

The EPQ is not the only way to accredit student research but it does offer UCAS points and is valued by universities as a sign that students have some academic curiosity as well as well-developed research and presentation skills. A good EPQ allows a young person to investigate a question which interests them critically, analytically and in some depth. Their topic might be a deeper exploration of a theme being studied in one of their subjects, it may arise from the interaction of their subjects or the spaces between them, or it may be something entirely personal and unrelated. At its best, it can be an original contribution which involves some primary research and offers a genuinely new insight.

Like many other baccalaureate qualifications, the Tech Bacc and the proposed new National Bacc both value research skills and working towards an EPQ is an excellent way to demonstrate these. The EPQ is an opportunity for students to produce their version of the apprentices ‘masterpiece’ which demonstrates their commitment and their promise and makes a tangible contribution to their community. It should be something they can proudly present to a wide audience and which provokes discussion and reflection.

At a time when A-level reforms promoting ‘linearity’ and the continuing squeeze on publicly funded sixth forms seem likely to spell the end of the ‘4AS down to 3A level’ route, the EPQ may well become the most attractive way to broaden students’ programmes and develop their interests.

Looking at London in more detail, it is clear that EPQ provision is patchy (see table below). Overall, just over 7% of all final year advanced sixth form students are entered for an EPQ, but this percentage ranges widely from 22% in Sutton, 13% in Ealing and Lambeth, 11% in Harrow and Southwark down to 4% in Brent, Hackney, Islington, Newham and Westminster, 3% in Hounslow and Redbridge and only 2% in Tower Hamlets. Advanced level students in Tower Hamlets are therefore 10 times less likely to be entered for an EPQ than those in Sutton. Given EPQ’s educational value, we need broader and more consistent access to it.

In London, the breakdown of entries between types of provider is: school sixth forms: 65%, colleges: 21% (of which sixth form colleges: 16%), private schools: 14%.

The pass rates for EPQ are generally high with the majority of London borough’s scoring 90% or above and the lowest pass rate of 73% in Merton as an outlier (the next lowest is Kensington & Chelsea with 85%).

There is probably a tendency for EPQ entries to be targeted at students who have already demonstrated good research skills and initiative and it is a way of recognising and rewarding this. A more inclusive and ambitious approach would also see the EPQ as a way of developing those skills in those students for whom this is a steeper learning curve. That is why I think we should have more ambitious targets for EPQ take up.

I have made the case for a stronger student research culture in all sixth forms in a previous post here and suggested that universities could extend and deepen their support for developing a research culture – particularly where EPQ entries are low or non-existent. At a time when sixth forms are struggling, regional partnerships involving universities could provide training and resources for sixth form staff and students across a wide area. University academics could also get involved in assessing and celebrating the resulting research.

In the NewVIc context, we are starting from a low base (15 EPQ entries in 2014) but there is plenty for us to build on:

  • Queen Mary University of London’s excellent work on developing ’criticality’
  • University of East London’s London Scholars programme of student-led research on East London challenges such as literacy
  • University College London’s ‘more than mentors’ research into young people’s health advocacy
  • The potential to develop some vocational assignments into fuller research projects as part of the Tech Bacc
  • The research potential of the wide range of student volunteering and service learning and our students’ involvement in campaigning and community organising, with London Citizens for example.

The possibilities and the benefits of expanding student research are evident, but will we have the resources and support to be able to resource this important work?

EPQ chief examiner John Taylor wrote an excellent piece in the TES with 8 top success  tips for teachers, 4 of which are here

See also my post from September 2014: Promoting a sixth form student research culture

2014 EPQ entries by London borough and as a proportion of the advanced leavers’ cohort

London borough EPQ entries % advanced completers
Barking 76 5.5
Barnet 159 4.6
Bexley 71 4.7
Brent 53 3.5
Bromley 280 9.4
Camden 126 5.9
City of London 11 5.2
Croydon 296 9.2
Ealing 217 13.0
Enfield 98 5.6
Greenwich 97 10.0
Hackney 45 3.6
Hammersmith & Fulham 139 8.1
Haringey 69 5.2
Harrow 270 10.9
Havering 133 5.7
Hillingdon 132 5.5
Hounslow 46 2.8
Islington 54 4.2
Kensington & Chelsea 60 5.0
Kingston 114 5.9
Lambeth 88 12.9
Lewisham 221 10.3
Merton 37 5.8
Newham 55 3.6
Redbridge 82 2.9
Richmond 111 7.0
Southwark 117 10.9
Sutton 443 22.2
Tower Hamlets 29 2.2
Waltham Forest 197 8.6
Wandsworth 235 10.5
Westminster 70 3.9
London total 4,231 7.2

Data drawn from the 2014 performance tables (underlying data).

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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