Sixth form student research continues to grow

The steady rise in Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entries in England’s sixth forms suggests that student research is increasingly valued. However, less than 6% of all advanced sixth form completers have the opportunity to achieve it and many are studying in sixth forms where it isn’t available.

The 37,892 EPQ entries in 2016 represent a 4% increase over the previous year and this continues the upward trend of the past 7 years. Nationally, 63% of EPQ entries come from over 1,300 school sixth forms, 26% of entries come from 182 colleges (with 78 sixth form colleges accounting for the great majority: 21% of the total) and 352 private fee-charging schools account for around 11% of entries. This still means that 44% of all sixth forms do not offer the EPQ at all.

The average number of EPQ entries per sixth form college is 101 – well above the average for any other provider type (17 for state funded schools and 12 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 1,043 EPQ entries. 2nd is Esher with 421 entries, 3rd is Barton Peveril with 349, 4th is Bilborough with 347 and 5th is Peter Symonds with 287.

The pass rates for EPQs are generally high with a national average of 91%. Once again 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. 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 4 A level programme unaffordable for most, an EPQ can be a good way to broaden students’ programmes and build on their wider academic interests. However, it attracts no additional funding for a 3 A level students and many providers will feel they cannot afford any additionality.

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.

The London picture

Looking at London in more detail, it is evident that despite growth overall, the availability of EPQ provision is patchy and becoming even more polarised, with most London borough entering below the London average proportion of the cohort (see table below). On average, only 5.5% of the eligible second year cohort across London is entered for an EPQ although this percentage varies widely from borough to borough with some of the ‘lowest’ boroughs experiencing a 3-year decline against the overall upwards trend.

2016 EPQ entries by London borough

No. of entries / proportion of eligible cohort / 3 year trend (2014-2016)

London borough 2016 % cohort Trend
Sutton 346 11.2 Down
Southwark 151 10.3 Up
Ealing 216 8.7 =
Lambeth 165 7.4 Up
City of London 15 7.1 Up
Wandsworth 258 6.8 Up
Kingston 185 6.4 Up
Hammersmith & Fulham 225 6.3 Up
Greenwich 135 6.1 Up
Richmond 150 5.9 Up
Croydon 276 5.4 Down
Bromley 255 5.2 Down
Merton 53 5.1 Up
Tower Hamlets 142 5.0 Up
Bexley 84 4.9 Up
Brent 123 4.5 Up
Hillingdon 202 4.3 Up
Lewisham 149 3.8 Down
Barnet 200 3.7 Up
Barking 135 3.7 Up
Westminster 121 3.7 Up
Enfield 93 3.5 Down
Waltham Forest 133 3.3 Down
Harrow 167 3.2 Down
Camden 105 3.1 Down
Redbridge 105 2.7 Up
Islington 18 2.7 Down
Kensington & Chelsea 56 2.4 Down
Havering 82 2.3 Down
Hounslow 72 2.2 Up
Haringey 63 2.2 Down
Newham 71 2.1 Up
Hackney 38 2.1 Down
London total 4,589 5.5 Up

Data drawn from the underlying data in the 2016 performance tables.

[Health warning: Borough data is for the borough providers are based in, not the borough students live in – this will have a distorting effect where a borough is served by a large provider whose main campus is actually in a neighbouring borough – this is quite common in London]

A few suggestions:

  • The possibilities and the benefits of expanding student research are evident but there aren’t enough incentives for more sixth forms to promote this important work: the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) should consider incentivising the EPQ in the same way that high achieving students on larger programmes attract more funding with a longer term aim of including research skills as part of national programmes of study.
  • Providers themselves should aim to increase EPQ take up overall: A target of at least 5% moving towards 10% of the cohort in every sixth form would be a perfectly achievable goal.
  • EPQ delivery lends itself to an area partnership approach and universities and employers are well placed to support this as it is very much in their interest to develop young people’s independent research skills. Local networks covering each area could be tasked with promoting and supporting EPQ provision across their patch.
  • EPQ entries shouldn’t only be targeted at A-level students who have already demonstrated good research skills and initiative: we should aim for a more inclusive and ambitious approach where the EPQ is seen as a way of developing those skills in all students including those for whom this is a steeper learning curve. The high cohort participation in some colleges are partly a reflection of the very high prior achievement of their students as well as of a strong research culture (eg: Hills Road in Cambridge at 96% of the cohort), but some more comprehensive providers also manage participation well above average (eg: Regent College in Leicester at 20% of the cohort).
  • Promoting and expanding the use of the Foundation (level 1) and Higher (GCSE level) Project Qualifications in schools and colleges would help to build skills and confidence and put in place the stepping stones many students need to help them work their way up to a fully fledged EPQ. Sixth form providers could offer to help Year 11 students achieve a Higher Project (GCSE level standard) in order to develop their research skills and prepare for progression. [I couldn’t find any data on HPQ entries in the Key Stage 4 Performance Table data – I’d be grateful if anyone can point to where this can be found]

See also:

More sixth formers doing research projects (February 2016)

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

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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