The continuing growth of Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entries in England’s sixth forms is a sign that student research is increasingly valued. However, still only 9% of advanced level sixth formers have the opportunity to achieve it and many are studying in sixth forms where it isn’t offered.
The 36,314 EPQ entries in 2015 represent a 4% increase over the previous year and this continues the upward trend of the past 6 years. Nationally, 62% of EPQ entries come from over 1,300 school sixth forms, 28% of entries come from 232 colleges (with 88 sixth form colleges accounting for the great majority: 22% of the total) and 328 private fee-charging schools account for around 10%.
The average number of EPQ entries per sixth form college is 93 – well above the average for any other provider type (17 for state funded schools and 11 for private schools). 15 of the top 20 centres by size are sixth form colleges and for the third year running the list is headed by Hills Road Sixth Form College with 980 EPQ entries. Second is Esher with 412 entries and third is Barton Peveril with 400 entries.
The pass rates for EPQ are generally high with a national average of 90%. The most successful provider type is sixth form colleges with an average pass rate of 95%.
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 of students’ academic curiosity as well as their 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 an apprentice’s ‘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 of continuing squeeze on public funding for sixth form education which makes a ‘4th A level’ less sustainable, an EPQ may well become the most attractive way to broaden students’ programmes and build on their wider academic interests.
At its best, the product of student research projects provides 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, artefacts 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, assessing and celebrating student research. Universities could extend and deepen their support for developing a research culture – particularly where EPQ entries are low or non-existent. Regional partnerships could provide training and resources for sixth form staff and students across a wide area.
Looking at London in more detail, entries have risen by 5% overall but it is clear that EPQ provision remains very patchy (see table below) so we need broader and more consistent access to it.
At Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) the EPQ is still operating at the margins of the curriculum and we are starting from a very low base (9 EPQ entries in 2015 and 15 in 2014) but we aim to increase these numbers and there are plenty of ideas for us to build on:
- Our ‘Future London’ action research project in partnership with London Citizens. This involves students researching some of the major problems facing our city and coming up with proposals to address them in the run up to the London mayoral and assembly elections this May.
- The research potential of a range of student volunteering and service learning such as our international projects with Raleigh International.
- Our student development programme and student involvement in campaigning and community organising.
- The University of East London’s London Scholars programme of student-led research on East London challenges such as literacy.
- Queen Mary University of London’s excellent work on developing student ’criticality’.
- The potential to develop some vocational assignments into fuller research projects.
- Our programme of Liberal Arts lectures which provides a rich source of additional research topics.
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 and we should aim to increase EPQ take up overall. Sixth forms could offer to help Year 11 students in their local schools achieve a Higher Project (GCSE level standard) in order to develop their research skills and prepare for progression to the EPQ.
The possibilities and the benefits of expanding student research are evident but are there enough incentives for more sixth forms to promote this important work?
2014 and 2015 EPQ entries by London borough
|Hammersmith & Fulham||139||124|
|Kensington & Chelsea||60||55|
|City of London||11||10|
Data drawn from the underlying data in the 2014 and 2015 performance tables.
Promoting a sixth form student research culture (September 2014)
EPQ chief examiner John Taylor wrote an excellent piece in the TES with 8 top success tips for teachers, 4 of which are here