Extended Paperwork Quota

Much to my disappointment, I am not supervising EPQ students this year. I have done so every previous year since the qualification was introduced, with students other than my own class-allocation voluntarily seeking my guidance, several gaining full marks and one entering Oxford partly on the strength of his EPQ.

I am certainly not claiming much credit for any of that, which rightly belongs to the students concerned – but to return to an issue raised in previous posts, it does raise the question of what influence a teacher can – and should – have.

I willingly became involved with the EPQ because I felt it was a promising move in the direction of deep education. I had seen Swiss students undertaking something similar for their matura exams, and others elsewhere on the continent as part of the International Baccalaureate, with impressively thoughtful results. Students are required to produce what amounts to a dissertation on a topic entirely of their own choosing, with minimal input from their supervisor. What better way to test the real product of thirteen years of formal school education before students leave for university or employment?

Or so I thought.  I have had some wonderful tutorials with individual students, throwing weighty ideas round with them, as they fought their way to a workable title, and then implemented their research and write-up; the best projects have indeed been genuinely knowledgeable pieces, some of which would easily have merited publication. The exchange of knowledge has sometimes been genuinely two-way, to the clear delight of the students. I can truly say it has been some of the most rewarding work that I have done in recent years, and the results spoke for themselves.

But EPQ seems to be in some trouble: the initially-high status attached to it by students seems to be in decline, and the mean quality of the submissions seems to be falling. More students seem to be missing the ‘spirit’ of the thing, seeing it as just one more task to get out of the way. I can’t really blame them.

From the start, the dead hand of bureaucracy laid its clammy touch across the project. It soon became apparent that this potentially-inspiring exercise had been misappropriated and turned into an enormous paper-chase. Students have to fill in something like thirteen separate forms before they can submit their work, ranging from subject proposals to process reviews – and their teachers have several more. This has become a significant hurdle for those completing them, taking up a considerable proportion of the time actually spent doing the work, and diverting attention from the real enquiry. Clearly some documentation is required – but the final straw comes when you realise that most credit attaches simply to having followed the investigative process, and having cleared the necessary administrative hurdles, rather than anything the student actually finds out as a result of their research. The actual learned/discovered content counts for relatively few marks. At a stroke a high-value academic exercise has been turned into a low-value administrative one.

As the regulator QCA says, the EPQ “can help students to develop and demonstrate a range of valuable skills…” All well and good in itself – but is that all there is to it? It is the emphasis on skills that created the need for so much ill-defined paperwork. I’m also left wondering whether it reflects a lack of confidence that teachers will have the breadth of knowledge to deal with such diversity. While it makes senses for subject expertise to be borne in mind, I think it is reasonable for an educated adult to be able to make useful comment on such a range subject matter, given that they are not the ones supposed actually to be conducting the in-depth research.

From the teacher’s perspective, most academic benefit of the exercise has been subsumed in the bureaucratic nightmare of administering the thing. Assessing the work is made all the more difficult by the unhelpful marking criteria which are vague to say the least.

The whole matter has been compounded by schools making the EPQ compulsory as a way of boosting ‘A’ Level point scores –which it indeed did for the first few years while student took it extremely seriously, but this now appears decreasingly to be the case. As soon as schools started insisting that the EPQ was compulsory, and setting out supervised programmes for its monitoring, the sense of vocation and academic freedom seen in the early years evaporated. With it went the sense of intrinsic worth that initially characterised what I had hoped could become the pinnacle of secondary education. An exercise that could have happily remained a useful extension for those suitably motivated risks devaluation due to inappropriate over-use.

My first-hand experience is inevitably limited here, but I hear of similar trends happening elsewhere. If I am right, it is just another example of how the over-rigid regulation of education can kill its essence stone dead.


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