I have spent some time marking Extended Projects this week and it has been an absolute pleasure.

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has been one of the few great examination innovations of the last five years. It allows students to research a subject of their choice and then produce some sort of outcome: this can be a piece of artwork or a model or a performance but is more usually a 5 000 word report on their findings. The students break free from the often predictable treadmill of A level courses, and genuinely follow their own interests, as well as developing research skills as an excellent preparation for university study. This second point should not be overlooked as so many universities complain that first year undergraduates are not able to learn independently, as higher education requires, having been spoon fed through their Sixth Form years. I am not sure that I entirely agree with this criticism but, clearly, anything that champions learning for its own sake and gives an insight into the research process is going to be useful for university application.

The universities are pretty positive about EPQ and it has certainly given some of the students something to talk about at interview, illustrating their own academic reading and showing enthusiasm for learning. The project is also worth half an A level: an entirely justifiable value given the amount of effort required for success.

At the end of the project the students must present a summary of their findings to an audience of students, teachers and parents: a great exercise in developing public speaking skills and a proud moment for the students to present ‘their’ research. The variety of the talks this year was impressive and it was great not only to hear ‘my’ supervisees speak well but also to learn something of how the other EPQ students, supervised by other members of staff, had fared.

Reflecting with the students at the end of the process, it is clear that the project qualification is not perfect. Too many of the marks and too much of the time are spent on documenting the process of the project; rebalancing this towards the quality of the final report and talk would be an improvement worth making. Nevertheless, I am sure that the qualification’s defenders would point out that it is designed to teach the research process as much as rewarding the product and it certainly achieved this aim. Changing the project title and research direction in the light of time pressures and resourcing difficulties all receive marks and, for all of the projects I supervised, were very necessary at some stage or other.

I have been fortunate enough to supervise 3 excellent students this year and my meetings with them have been hugely enjoyable because of their energy and determination. I have learned new things about the global pharmaceutical industry, about the politics and economics of the tax-free allowance and about the Enigma code: a gloriously eclectic mix. Experiences like this revitalise my own enthusiasm for teaching.

The current L6 students are deciding whether to begin an EPQ after the rigours of AS exams subside: I look forward to embarking upon the supervising process afresh!