The Joy of Projecting Passion

28th September 2018

Sixteen-year-olds are arguably under more pressure than ever, yet the number choosing to take on even more academic challenge is rising. Lisa Botwright finds out more about the value and popularity of the Extended Project Qualification…

“Once you get the introduction down, the hardest bit’s over,” Northwood College sixth-former Zaynab tells me. Despite the fact that she’s unwittingly described my job as a features writer, she’s nonetheless talking about her experiences of tackling the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) – a post-16 academic qualification, usually undertaken alongside A Levels, offered by many local independent and state schools.

The number of children taking up EPQs has risen dramatically since the qualification was introduced in 2006. In 2010, around 16,000 children chose to take it; four years later that had risen to 35,000. This year, according the Department for Education, the figure was a record 40,437.

The key component of an EPQ is either an in-depth essay (a mini-dissertation, essentially, of around 5,000 words) on a topic of the student’s choice, or a project: perhaps an investigation/field study, or something the student creates – anything from choreographing a dance to designing an app. As the work evolves, the teenagers must track all their research and write detailed notes, and lastly they’ll be required to make an oral presentation summing up the whole thing.

It’s an attractive option because there’s so much flexibility around the subject matter, but it can also be terrifying for the same reason. “It’s so difficult to choose in the first place, when you can write about absolutely anything, from whenever or wherever… I’d always been given a topic from teachers before,” explains 16-year-old Pramila, also from Northwood College. Her ambition is to be an architect, and in the end she chose to align her EPQ question (‘How feasible are zero carbon buildings or cities in Kenya?’) with her chosen career path.

In the stampede for university places en route to highly competitive careers, such as architecture or medicine, it’s widely believed that the specialist knowledge gained from an EPQ will, at the very least, make a student’s personal statement stand out, and, most temptingly, invite the possibility of lower offer grades in the main subjects of study. Aisling Ryan, Director of Sixth Form at St Clement Danes in Chorleywood, says “Universities tend to view the EPQ in a very positive way simply because the skills students employ in their studies are those which will be essential at university (and in many workplaces) – focused research, working to short, mid, and long term deadlines and independent time management. The passion a student can bring to their chosen EPQ topic often illustrates precisely why a student is a great fit for particular areas of degree level study or for a particular career.”

One of her Year 12 students, Isabel, is keen to go on to study physiotherapy, but is daunted by the entry requirements. “Most of the universities I’ve looked at want As, but I’m hoping that if I do an extended project in this area, it will give my application an edge – and admissions departments might be more lenient if my A-level grades are slightly off target,” she confides.

“The EPQ offers our A Level students the opportunity to demonstrate a high level of engagement with topics which they have a particular interest in and therefore want to find out more about,” Miss Ryan continues. “It takes them beyond the scope of an A Level specification and allows them to enjoy the independence of a research project which they have devised.”

And do the universities concur? The overwhelming consensus seems to be ‘yes’, although it’s vital to check in with the admissions department of the university of your choice. According to the UCAS website, ‘Feedback from HEPs [Higher Education Providers] suggests that the skills that students develop as part of the EPQ are highly valued. Some HEPs signal this by adjusting their standard A Level offer for certain courses to include the EPQ. Others use EPQ results in Clearing to distinguish between students who have the same A level results’. Julie Kelly, Head of the Student Centre at the University of Herts, a role that includes leading the admissions teams, confirms that, in her experience, they’re certainly looked upon favourably. “We are very happy to receive EPQs. The way they are taught and assessed is actually more like university study than linear A Levels, so it’s good preparation for life at university.”

Since the EPQ can be as much about the skills gained along the way as about the content, students shouldn’t only consider concepts they feel they ‘ought’ to study, but should be relaxed about choosing something they ‘want’ to study. While Pramila and Isabel, for example, are committed to their career path, other teenagers are less sure about their next steps and keen to keep options open as long as possible. The overwhelming advice from students I questioned is just to ‘do something you love’.

Any subject, it seems, truly is acceptable, as long as it’s tackled with appropriate academic rigour. “A good project question must be evaluative – it must have a lot of ‘meat’ or layers, otherwise it won’t hold up,” offers Jo Hughes, EPQ Lead and Head of Thinking Skills at Northwood College. “The great thing is that if you’re umming and ahing about which A levels to choose – say you need sciences for your career, but you love drawing – then you could do an art project. The only requirement is that it shouldn’t overlap with taught subjects; it mustn’t be part of the exam specification.”

Sixteen-year-old Siân, a pupil at Queens’ School in Bushey, is already thinking broadly. Siân’s A Levels are in the Arts and Humanities, but she’s in the early stages of planning an EPQ that will look into ‘the healing properties of animals’, for no other reason than that she adores cats and dogs and is fascinated by the magnetic hold that they have over humans. “It’s a subject I’m really passionate about, so for me, it’s a personal thing, and not just about the academic qualification.”

The quirkiest EPQ subject Jo Hughes has ever supervised, she confesses, was one about skateboarding. By training she’s Religion, Philosophy and Ethics teacher, so it’s not surprising she admits to feeling out of her comfort zone with that one. But the student she mentored went on to gain a good place at university, she recalls, in a subject completely unrelated to extreme sport. “It’s all about digging down, thinking critically and evaluating what’s useful” …whatever the content.

But even with all its advantages the EPQ shouldn’t be embarked upon lightly. It’s time-consuming – adding hours of extra work to an already demanding timetable. At least two hours a week is the expected figure, according to teaching staff at St Clement Danes, for example, in addition to the five hours of independent study per subject per week, on top of lessons, that are the minimum stipulation for each A Level subject. And more hours can add up to more pressure. The ramifications of the reforms that former Education Secretary Michael Gove began in 2015 in order to make GCSEs and A Levels, in his words, “more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching” are still reverberating, leading to claims that young people are more unhappy and stressed than ever before. Almost 400,000 children and young people a year in England are being treated for mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, according to NHS figures. These are the highest number ever recorded.

One student, writing anonymously on an online forum, says “I mentioned my EPQ on my personal statement, and it helped me to get an offer from my top choice university, but EPQ alone doesn’t magically boost your university application. I know several people who ignored it and got into Oxbridge. It shows a passion for your chosen subject, but there are other ways to show this. If you’re applying for a History course you can volunteer in a museum, for example. It might take up less time than an EPQ, be just as relevant, and leave you more opportunities to focus on your A Levels.”

Pramila concedes that the writing process took “a lot of perseverance and resilience”, and that the hardest part was trying to get the “right balance between analysis and description”, but is nevertheless enormously happy with the final outcome. She shares, along with the other Year 13 EPQ students I met, a huge sense of satisfaction. As fellow pupil Zaynab sums up “the end result is definitely worth it… my EPQ is like my little baby; I’m very proud.”

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