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Challenge and stretch

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As an adjunct to A levels, the extended project is designed to stretch the brightest students but it will make new demands on teachers, too. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

The extended project (EP), being offered from this term as an adjunct to A levels and as part of the level 3 diploma, is intended to develop students' research skills and their ability to learn independently.

A level students will be able to take the EP as a stand-alone qualification - equivalent in value to half an A-level - in a subject which may or may not be related to their studies.

However, for candidates on the advanced diploma the EP is compulsory and is intended to allow them to focus in more depth on a specialist study area. It will also be a part of the other diploma levels.

The EP can be taken by students in one of four formats. Most are likely to favour the 5,000-word dissertation but they can also present their work as an investigation or field study, a performance or an artefact.

Each of these formats has its own specific assessment requirements, though all students still have to complete a piece of written work, as part of a justification of their project, of up to about 2,000 words.

Overall, four aspects are assessed in the EP process: the planning stage, the research stage, the execution of the task and the evaluation and presentation of findings. Candidates need to specify what materials they are using and why, justify their project and explain why they did it in that particular way.

At the end of the process they have to present their work and take questions about their findings, a process that will effectively authenticate the project as their own.

Put simply, the EP requires students to ask a question and then answer it. The whole project is expected to take students up to 180 hours in guided and individual learning spanning up to two years of study.

Wary of Wikipedia

So what does this mean for the teachers and tutors delivering the EP?

David MacKay, programme leader for 14-19 qualification at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who has responsibility for the EP, says teachers will have a crucial role.

"The tutor will support students in the process of scoping the project and trying to put together a manageable question that is sufficiently broad, but not so [broad] that they cannot answer it," he says. "What will be difficult is working out where support ends."

Determining the appropriate use of resources is also an important aspect of teacher guidance. "Students will need to be very careful what resources they are using and evaluate them. It is not going to be enough to rely on something like Wikipedia," David says.

Another important role for staff will be to keep students on track throughout the development of their EPs. Teresa Bergin, head of diploma at the QCA, says: "A challenge for teachers is making sure that students are asking the right question at each stage of their work. These are skills teachers have from being students in higher education themselves and which they may need to rediscover and pass on to their students."

Choosing the appropriate topic and questions to answer as part of the EP must be the decision of candidates, the QCA has stressed.

For the past two years, about 1,500 sixth formers in more than 80 schools have been piloting the EP. David is generally "very pleased" with the outcome of the pilot.

"They looked as we expected them to, though a few issues emerged that will require us to send out additional guidance to schools," he says. "One of the concerns is that students did not produce the full range of evidence explaining how they arrived at their conclusions, but rather provided lots of information which was incoherent and not necessarily relevant."

The scores reflect this. Edexcel, for example, passed 65 per cent of trial entries at grade E or above last summer. The chief moderator's report found that many entries lacked focus and explored a theme rather than a specific question.

Many schools that took part in the early pilots are enthusiastic about the qualification and now plan to extend the process to other areas of their curriculum.

At Turton High School Media Arts College in Bolton, 15 of the 36 students who trialled the EP last year gained a grade A, seven achieved Bs and there were 10 Cs.

Charlie Taylor, deputy head with responsibility for 14-19 learning, became involved in the trials in his capacity as chair of a cluster of schools in the north of the borough.

"I was already working on the diploma strategy within the cluster and it seemed the right thing to do to take part in the trials," he says.

Extra pressure

He believes the EP places extra pressures on sixth formers, and not all will be suited to the demands. Several in the first cohort dropped out because they were unable to find the self-discipline required to see it through.

For those who did, however, the experience was positive and motivating. One student, who examined the shift in media perception of Osama Bin Laden from freedom fighter to terrorist, found her EP dominated her university interview to study law.

"She said she was able to control the interview because the admissions tutor was so interested in how she researched her EP and arrived at her conclusions," says Charlie.

"It was noticeable that among those who successfully took part in the cohort, it was the top students who got most out of the experience. But that is perhaps to be expected because those students are often the most driven."

Students at Turton taking the EP had a number of introductory sessions prior to beginning the qualification, but otherwise the course is not being timetabled. Candidates are expected to be self-motivated but can expect a one-to-one session with a teacher at least once a term and total guided teaching time of about 30 hours from the five staff assigned to oversee the qualification.

"They also have access to their teachers for support and guidance whenever they need it," Charlie says.

Students decide for themselves whether they submit their work in May or the following November, depending on their own individual workload.

"The main challenge for students was time-management because the EP does ask a lot of them, and some need more guidance and support than others," he adds. "One of the biggest challenges for staff is to get [students] away from Google and Wikipedia, which is one of the reasons we set up links with the universities of Bolton and Manchester, allowing our pupils to use their libraries."

Another effective trial was at Rugby School, in Warwickshire, which has been running a similar qualification of its own since 2004. In Perspectives in Science students do a dissertation exploring the history, philosophy and ethics of science.

The qualification was accredited by Edexcel and used by 40 schools, about half of them state secondaries, explains Sarah Fletcher, the deputy head.

"We became a pilot for the EP in 2006 after the experience we had accumulated running our own dissertations," she says. "We found it had a very broad appeal and was not restricted to students doing sciences. We organised some common classes where pupils looked at ethical issues, as well as developing their thinking and analytical skills. The main thing was to get them to argue as coherently and logically as possible."

Personalised learning

At Hagley Catholic High School in Worcestershire, the EP was similarly piloted from an existing post-16 qualification developed by the school.

"I had already been involved in writing a study programme suitable for delivering RE in the sixth form in the form of our Certificate in Catholic Studies and was interested in using the EP as a new vehicle to accredit our work," says Francis Mohan, the deputy head and head of sixth form.

One student explored the political and religious situation in Peru with reference to human rights and the Church. Another put together a performance about life in shanty towns around the world for which she composed her own music, drawing on the cultures of the regions she was featuring. Meanwhile, in another performance piece, a group of male students examined global water supplies by compiling an awareness-raising lesson for younger pupils.

Francis says: "I hesitate to say the EP experience was very good for all students, but it certainly was good for most. Initially, we felt quite in the dark about what was expected, especially as the requirements changed halfway through, but this will get much easier with the cohort beginning the EP properly."

He adds: "We were commended for the quality of our work, of which I am very proud, as we believe that this is a wonderful opportunity for personalised learning. However, I think it will be hard for candidates to get a top grade because of the amount of paper and recording required to meet the outcomes and the providing of evidence."

The experience also had its rewards for teachers, he says. "When teachers go through the EP alongside their students they will learn all about them as people in a way they did not before. They will discover all their strengths and weaknesses because of the way they have to immerse themselves in this experience."

The school now plans to roll out EPs in other subjects, including geography and biology.

"You cannot force students to do an EP but we are planning to create a culture of expectations in which students want to do it," Francis says. "I would urge university admissions tutors to take the EP seriously because I believe it really will be an excellent way of identifying the top candidates."

Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

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