EPQ: allowing girls of all abilities to be challenged in a way that suits

EPQ: allowing girls of all abilities to be challenged in a way that suits

At the start of this month we held our Sixth Form Open Evening; our Year 11 girls are currently sitting their mock examinations; and everyone is beginning to think about ‘next steps’, including A Level subject choices – so it’s a very exciting time for our young women. Equally exciting were the presentations on Thursday 17 November by some of our Upper Sixth students – on their EPQs (Extended Project Qualifications).

Initially developed to stretch and challenge gifted International Baccalaureate students this is a qualification that we encourage all Sixth Form students to undertake. By doing so, every girl, whatever her level of ability, has the same opportunities for enriching her learning and developing her skills in a way that suits her interests – and to do incredibly well.

Head of Sixth Form, Ruth Taylor, elaborates:

“The EPQ is a self-motivated project that requires self-discipline and independent research on a topic of the girl’s own choice, and so it is seen as a good option for those who want to stand out and get into a good university or an alternative post-18 pathway. It is also an opportunity to follow a passion, and not be limited by the A Level syllabus. The EPQ encourages academic engagement and thought beyond what is needed for A Level examinations, develops critical thinking, independence, resilience, and interdisciplinary skills, and gives the girls a chance to be original and individual in their work. This is a valuable part of the girls’ preparation for life beyond school.”

I can’t stress enough how beneficial the project is. University admissions officers hold the qualification in extremely high regard: Mrs Karole Lewis, our EPQ Co-ordinator, can recount numerous occasions when girls’ offers have been honoured despite them not achieving the required grades, thanks largely to the strength of their EPQ project. What’s more, the girls themselves develop in a multitude of ways simply by working through the project process. In fortnightly lessons with Mrs Lewis, before the girls start their independent work, they consider: planning and Gantt charts; critical analysis; credibility criteria; research methods; interviewing techniques; surveying tactics; interpreting statistics; report writing, and much more.

At the presentation evening a few of the girls explained that they had chosen a topic because they had been inspired as part of their A Level studies and were curious to delve deeper into a particular area, and that the project would provide a structured way for them to do so. Other girls highlighted that, having already decided what they wanted to pursue after school, the project helped to clarify and strengthen their desires. For one student, having initially developed an idea for her topic, she explained that the more research she undertook the more she was drawn to complete her project on a different area. Ultimately, the girls are encouraged to investigate a topic that they are interested in – as the primary benefits of the EPQ arise from the experience of undertaking the project, and even for university admissions officers, it is the key skills acquired that are most valued.

The personal benefit of the project process can be seen in Upper Sixth student, Frances K.’s, explanation of how she came to choose her project topic and, ultimately, her plans for the future.

Frances said:

“I was asked to choose my topic based on what I am interested in ... but I couldn’t really work out what I am interested in. I do ask a lot of questions, such as ‘what makes me different to you?’ and ‘what is the meaning of life?’, so I went through a lot of the questions that I often think about, and decided that I would focus on the subject of identity. The project required a huge amount of reading, learning a lot of new terminology and concepts, improving my research, reasoning and logical thinking skills, and a requirement to defend concepts and theories I might not personally agree with. I am now considering studying Philosophy at university.”

Other girls spoke about a number of challenges that they faced: managing their own time over the duration of the year, and then balancing their workloads during term time; finding unbalanced arguments, for instance not being able to source evidence to support an opposing view, or struggling to make contact with particular campaigners; or not being confident in giving their view on a particular debate. This of course resonates particularly strongly this year as one of the 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School on which we have chosen to focus this year is ‘Coping effectively with failure’. Each of these challenges (as opposed, strictly, to ‘failures’!) presented an excellent opportunity for the girls to become more familiar with the style of learning they will encounter at university, to become more confident, to analyse different arguments (which is helpful for A Level subjects with lots of essay writing too), and exploring alternative solutions to problems posed. Thanks to the process of completing her project, Kiki K. said she: “learnt to form [her] own view”.

The presentation itself requires the girls to present their projects in an accessible way for a non-informed audience, using a PowerPoint presentation to explain what they have done, why they have done it, and reflecting on the processes and the outcomes. At the end of the presentation they are asked three questions from the floor, in order to gauge their wider understanding of their project topic, as well as the processes they have been through. When they submit their final project before Christmas of their Upper Sixth year, they are required to include: their project; a log of their work including the key skills they have developed; their meetings with Mrs Lewis; and their presentation itself.

It was interesting to see the range of topics the girls had chosen to investigate this year: fracking in North Yorkshire; Gender Dysmorphia; the world’s superpowers; the relationship between humans and the environment at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve; and Abandonment Syndrome. Mrs Lewis recalls: “The St Mary’s girls who undertake the EPQ study such a wide variety of topics that moderators always commend the range and creativity of our girls’ projects.” For a flavour of the projects, read a little about each of this year's presentations here. Alternatively, to read through the synopses of last year’s cohort’s EPQs, please view our EPQ and Work Experience brochure here. It was also wonderful to see the girls confidently sharing their findings with the audience. I warmly congratulate the girls on the work that they have put into their projects and for their fascinating and entertaining presentations, and I thank Mrs Karole Lewis for her determined guidance throughout the girls’ EPQ projects. Undertaking this project clearly stands the girls in good stead to progress to whatever pathway they may choose beyond school, because of the skills they have nurtured and developed during the course of the EPQ.