Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Beyond A levels: the sixth-formers who write dissertations for fun

Published By: The Independent - 01 Mar 2007

Dan Lowrie spent last summer researching the future of anti-matter. Becci Fearnley examined the impact that the French revolution had on English literature. For Nic Coxon the question was: was Black Wednesday avoidable? While Marie-Claire Thomas looked at how well translators had managed to capture Lorca’s rural tragedies.
Were these PhD students, turning their backs on the August sunshine in order to flog through their dissertations?
No, they were lively 16- and 17-year-olds who, despite having a full batch of A levels to get through, had volunteered to have a go at a new qualification which involving doing an extended piece of individual research.
And while most of them, on their own admission, opted in because they thought it would look good on their c.v. and help them get into university, they have been astonished to discover how much they enjoyed it.
“I decided to look at anti-matter because it was a modern topic, and one I didn’t know anything about,” says Dan Lowrie, who is doing maths, further maths, physics and biology at A level “You touch on it in A level, but you don’t go into any detail. And although it was hard at first, as I got into it, and was finding out stuff I didn’t know, and coming across new ideas, it became really interesting.”
Dan, Becci, Nic and Marie-Clare are all students at Farnborough Sixth Form College, Hampshire, which this autumn became the first institution to pioneer the new Extended Project award, for advanced level students, this autumn.
The idea sprang from recommendations made to the Government two years ago by Mike Tomlinson, when he was asked to review the qualifications taken by 14-19-year-olds. His proposal for an overarching diploma was rejected, but his idea that every student should undertake a major piece of individual work was received more warmly and a national pilot study for an Extended Project Qualification -- equivalent to an AS, but a separate, stand-alone award -- was launched this autumn.
However, by then, the Farnborough students were already hard at it. The college is one of country’s leading specialist sixth form institutes and knew from experience that employers and universities were desperate for candidates who could think and work independently. It also wanted to stretch its students’ capabilities and show they what they could do. “It goes back to the whole question of what is learning for,” says John Guy, the college principal.
As a result, the college’s more able students were invited at the end of their first year to undertake a piece of research that involved at least two of their A level subjects. “We wanted them to understand that knowledge is not limited to subject areas,” says Guy. A hundred and twenty stepped forward, were each given a teacher mentor, and were told to spend the summer and autumn researching their work, before delivering a 5,000-word essay by autumn half-term.
The drop out rate was high, but 70 finished and were presented with handsomely-bound dissertations this November by – fittingly -- Mike Tomlinson. The subjects ranged from ‘Keynesian economics during the Great Depression’, through ‘When does a foetus become a human being?’ to ‘The influence of Russian history on the writings of George Orwell’ and ‘An exploration of how music relates to cognitive ability’.
Guy says the college was “astounded” by the standard of work produced by the students, most of whom were fitting it around holidays, part-time jobs and regular study.
Students, too, are intensely proud of what they have achieved. “At the end of it you know you can do a big project. You learn how to research and the best way to structure an essay. I’m very glad I did it.” says Marie-Claire Thomas, 18, who is studying drama, Spanish, biology, German and Japanese. Her work on Lorca was judged to be so outstanding by moderators, that she received a special prize. It also came up at her Cambridge interview, where she has been offered a place, although other Oxbridge candidates were disappointed not to have their work mentioned. “Three interviews,” says Dan Lowrie, with feeling, “and it wasn’t mentioned once!”
Students were also disappointed that they received no grades for their work, only a page of written comments, although Guy points out that because it was “a trial of a pilot” no benchmarks were in place, “and we felt we wanted them to feel proud, rather than be measured.”
However, while Farnborough embarked on their qualification as an academic exercise, the project being piloted across the country embraces all kinds of different approaches. “It might be a dance, an artefact, or a youth and community project,” says Cath Jadhav, of the examining board AQA, which is running the project along with another awarding body, City and Guilds. “It could be developing some computer software, or doing some sort of active service. The aim is that students doing Level 3 qualifications have an interest that they want to take further.”
Michael Mitchell, head of social science at Exmouth Community College, in Devon, which is one of the schools piloting the new project, says that it is a way students can develop key skills and show their rounded abilities. His students are examining issues such as climate change and why young people don’t vote, “and we are having an Active Citizenship Day where students will work with NGOs and present workshops.”
Nathan Teed, 17, is working with a partner, to evaluate the security systems on his school’s campus. “We’ll look at how useful the cameras are, and what’s the point of the fences. Are they to keep students in, or other people out?” They plan to circulate a questionnaire to students and talk to school staff, then present their findings via a tour of the school, and a talk on the issue, for the qualification’s moderators.
He is doing A levels in sociology, philosophy and ethics, and media studies and says “a lot of people at the school didn’t want to do it at first, but when they heard more about it, and realised that is was only one lesson a week and they would get an AS at the end of it they got more interested.”
But, at Farnborough, Guy is concerned that the essence of the extended project could be lost if it becomes yet another over-specified qualification. “If it takes the place of an AS level then that, in my view, dumbs down their studies. They can’t do this as an AS at 16 because they haven’t done any advanced-level study at that stage, and the problem with doing it in the second year of A level is that it takes time to do the research and it doesn’t fit in with the academic year. The whole point of the nature of this work is that you don’t do it in class. That would negate the purpose. It’s all about taking responsibility and having private ownership of your learning. It’s about discovering knowledge, skills and understanding that you alone are privy to.”
However, by 2008, when the EPQ will be available to all advanced learners, the tick boxes will undoubtedly be in place. Students will have to have had a certain number of hours of guided learning, and will be assessed and graded according to detailed criteria. Whether the essence of independent study can remain intact under such close QCA control is, Guy fears, doubtful.

Nigel Markey, 17, is studying A level maths, further maths, physics and geography, and was prompted to look into the question of whether the UK needs a national water grid by a news report about last summer’s drought. He discovered there were various options under discussion and that detailed plans could be found for them online. He also found data from the Environment Agency, monitoring levels of water in reservoirs and ground water aquifers. “After it rained, people were saying ‘Oh, we’ve got enough water now’, but although the reservoirs had filled up, the aquifers were still low. I discovered it is feasible to have a national grid, either through big pipes covering the whole country, or smaller ones that allow you connect between rivers, but having smaller ones seems to be the better and cheaper option. At my first Oxford interview they were really interested in this, and it gave my confidence a boost to have something I knew more about than they did to talk about – but then I fell down in the maths paper!”

Charlie Cosham, 17, is studying English literature, history, philosophy and business studies, and decided to look at ‘existentialist perspectives on the second sex’ by studying feminism in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. “It was really interesting. It made a lot of difference not being forced to do it, and the fact that it was all about self-motivation and working independently. And going into real depth with something is good practise for university and really enhances your essay skills. I had to read some very complex novels and come at a lot of different ideas and philosophies through literature. Basically my conclusion was that while de Beauvoir was a traditional feminist, Sartre was trying to be, but then he destroyed it by what he made his characters say. And that wasn’t just his characters speaking in character. Their thoughts are echoed elsewhere in what he wrote. I thought we’d have a really good debate about all this when I went for my Cambridge interview, but I was interviewed by two blokes who didn’t even bring it up.”