Project qualifications: The benefits and barriers

Project qualifications: The benefits and barriers
Date25th Sep 2023AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesTeaching, Policy and News

This piece was initially published on Rethinking Assessment's blog here. Rethinking Assessment is a coalition of education leaders and stakeholders seeking to broaden and modernise assessment. 

Project Qualifications equip students with vital skills for future education and work. They provide an opportunity to break away from the standard curriculum and traditional classroom settings, so the student can dive headlong into topics about which they are passionate. On top of that, many universities see successful completion as a sign would-be graduates are dedicated to independent learning.

So why are they still an underused qualification?

Jen Osler explains in greater detail the benefits of completing the qualification and the barriers blocking greater uptake.

In my work, I have seen again and again how Project Qualifications (PQs) give students freedom and help them transition to the next phase of their lives. Available at Level 1, 2 and 3, PQs involve the student producing a piece of written work or an artefact on a topic of their choice. They are studied full-time at school or college alongside other qualifications, such as GCSEs or A levels.

Level 1 Foundation Project (FPQ) and Level 2 Higher Project (HPQ) are worth half a GCSE. The Level 3, Extended Project (EPQ) is worth half an A-Level.  They are marked on the student’s ability to plan, manage, complete and review their project.

Taking on a PQ lets students – under the guidance of a supervising teacher – drive their own learning and, as a result, their own personal growth. Self-regulated learning is at the heart of it which contrasts starkly with traditional A-Levels and GCSEs that rely on formulaic classroom teaching of tightly governed curricula.

The winning EPQ in 2022’s Association of Colleges awards was an academic study of hen welfare, ‘Cages Through the Ages’ created by A-Level student Heather Heathcote. Heather was already researching care for her rescue hens and wanted to do a veterinary degree. She received a reduced university offer as a result of her work. Another project investigating the health benefits of singing, saw the creation of a community choir as the EPQ’s artefact.

These are two shining examples of the key benefit of PQs – students’ passions can determine their projects. They are not confined to academic research and can stretch way beyond what is offered by school or college.

As the EPQ on bird welfare shows, they are also an ideal way to lay the foundations for future study. Students learn a suite of core skills including project management, critical evaluation, referencing and report writing with a teacher who then steps back and hands them the reins.

This is where students learn the skills that will equip them for future education, the workplace and life in general.

They plan each stage – when, how and where to research, set personal deadlines and present regular progress reports. Managing precious time and being self-motivated is an empowering and challenging process for students more used to sitting in a classroom being taught. It builds self-confidence, self-efficacy, resilience and problem-solving skills as well as giving project-management experience.

PQs also provide an alternative to what some see as unduly stressful and quite narrow examinations that dominate the educational landscape.

Continual supervision of students’ work, viva-style presentations and the study logs they have to create, embed all the new information and skills as well as guarding against plagiarism – of growing importance in the age of ChatGPT.  The benefits of this self-motivated learning appear to be spilling over into other areas of education.

University admissions officers are increasingly alert to EPQs’ advantages. 

Many now make reduced offers to those who have successfully completed one.  EPQs also make a great talking point for students’ personal statements and at interviews as they demonstrates a commitment to independent learning and the subjects they wish to study.

Links between completing an EPQ and improved academic performance elsewhere are appearing. Successful students’ chances of achieving an A* to B in some other A-Level subjects rise by up to 29%.

In university, they move on from first to second year in greater numbers than those without and eventually achieve better class degrees. This is seen most significantly with students from the least well-off backgrounds. A great way to engage the disenfranchised or struggling is to allow them to be in charge of their learning and focus on a topic in which they are interested.

The FPQ in particular can help marginalised children, such as those in special schools and Pupil Referral Units.

There are some barriers to greater numbers accessing PQs, however.

Firstly, aside from the understandable challenges of resourcing PQs, school leadership teams need to buy in to the idea of them. A lack of awareness means Heads of School may not see the full benefits they offer. Without a Senior Team to advocate for them, take up will remain relatively small.

The EPQ is the most popular with around 38,500 completed last years. Level 1 and 2 are increasingly popular. In 2020 a combined total of around 3,000 were taken. In 2022 that figure was over 4,500.

Another barrier to greater take up is the misconception that EPQs are only for more able students and should be a university-style dissertation. The reality is quite the opposite. PQs are accessible for all and the projects can be very practical and creative in nature as the community choir project shows.

A final hurdle, particularly for the EPQ, is that they may be seen as a competitor to other activities already supported by schools, such as the Duke of Edinburgh or National Citizenship Service.

However, rather than being seen as an either/or situation, the far-sighted could see opportunities for two activities to work in tandem, with the PQ providing material and experience for the successful completion of other activities.

It is these barriers that have to be overcome for Project Qualifications to flourish and students reap the benefits they offer.

Jen Osler is head of curriculum portfolio at AQA.

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