Since its launch in September 2008, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has proved enormously -popular across the country. While all types of school have entered candidates, independent schools have been particularly enthusiastic. In its first year, just 27 independent schools offered this course of study — which is a sort of mini-thesis on a subject of the pupil’s choice — and they entered only 125 candidates. By last summer, 242 independent schools were offering it, with 2,423 of their pupils submitting work. It was therefore no surprise to read Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and former headmaster of Harrow, extolling its virtues in a recent Daily Telegraph article; he described an EPQ in subjects such as medicine or architecture as a ‘formidable demonstration’ of pupils’ enthusiasm for their subject when it comes to university applications.
But the EPQ shouldn’t be seen as the preserve of fiercely competitive independent schools. Entries from other sectors have also risen year on year, and the statistics point to a notable expansion of interest from city academies and free schools, which saw a rise from just 213 entries in 2010 to 12,356 this year. This rise is repeated in grammar schools and secondary comprehensives, although here the increase isn’t as dramatic.
So what does an EPQ entail? It is an extended piece of writing which is honed and researched by the student and at the end presented by them to a gathered audience. It presents pupils, often in Year 12, with the chance to pursue a topic of study which is entirely of their own choosing and unconstrained by an exam syllabus.
With its emphasis on independent research and self-motivation, the EPQ is attracting many of the brightest and the best. St Paul’s Boys School says it allows ‘pupils to work independently, pursue their intellectual passions in depth and develop a wide range of intellectual skills’.
Of course, many independent schools already offer a range of enriching activities, and this extra qualification adds to the burden of work, when it is difficult enough to balance the demands of three or four A-levels alone. So why are schools so keen to push the EPQ?
The key factor of course is that it impresses leading universities. Cambridge University’s website states that it welcomes the introduction of the Extended Project and ‘would encourage you to undertake one as it will help you develop independent study and research skills and ease the transition from school/college to higher education’. This is backed up by a research report from the 1994 group of universities, which says: ‘A large majority of departmental admissions tutors expect to recognise it as a positive attribute when selecting among applicants with similar levels of achievement (both high-fliers and those at the borderline).’ Amid fierce competition for university places, the EPQ is one way in which pupils can make themselves stand out. It is worth Ucas points, can be referenced in a Ucas statement, and can form the basis for questions at a university interview. This is all positive when it comes to securing a coveted place.
However, for many, the motivation is less calculated. The EPQ allows pupils to do something totally different, and gives them an opportunity to explore new fields of study. Even EPQs connected to a mainstream subject open up a wealth of choice beyond the confines of a fixed exam syllabus. For pupils wishing to study medicine, engineering or architecture, an EPQ gives them the chance to prove their enthusiasm for these subjects. In some cases, pupils may choose not to write their EPQ report, but instead to compose or perform a piece of music or produce a piece of art. The options are endless.
With exam reform at both GCSE and A-level now in progress, and schools under continued pressure not only to maintain and improve exam results, but also to equip their pupils with that little extra ‘something’ when it comes to university applications, I wouldn’t expect to see interest in the EPQ wane anytime soon. On the contrary, it may come to be a key part of the sixth-form pupil’s academic and personal profile.