15 minutes with Graham Gardner, Librarian and EPQ Co-ordinator at Abingdon School

Enjoying a wide-ranging career, spanning academic research, writing and bookselling, Dr Gardner joined Abingdon as School Librarian in 2014. He champions reading, research and independent learning and led and implemented the design of a new library at Abingdon, tailored for the diverse needs of students growing up in a rapidly changing world. In September 2021, he was appointed EPQ coordinator – which he regards as a natural next step in the evolution of his role – having supported the qualification since his arrival. Here, he discusses the advantages of students taking an EPQ…

What is the EPQ and what has been the take-up by Abingdon students?

An EPQ (extended project qualification) is essentially an independent research task, entirely coursework based, worth half an A Level (up to 28 UCAS points, depending on the grade achieved). Between its launch in 2014 and the 2021-22 cohort, engagement with the EPQ at Abingdon has grown steadily. This year, the number of students registering for the EPQ has increased by 70% from 76 in 2021 to 130.

What is it that you think has led to such an increase in uptake?

The EPQ has a wide appeal. Abingdon students are ambitious, driven and interested in opportunities to strengthen their university applications, which the EPQ can do. It requires students to exercise creative ownership, responsibility and control; the opportunity to do something different – explore an idea, test a hypothesis, build an artefact – is strongly appealing to many young people. I know that many students register because the EPQ has been endorsed by students in the year above and the pandemic has also played a part. Against a backdrop of sustained uncertainty, cancelled exams and a reduction in potential work placements and other extracurricular opportunities, the EPQ offers reassurance: students know that, come what may, the EPQ will go ahead and provide them with a valuable qualification.

What are some recent examples of EPQ topics that students have done?

Students can choose any topic which interests them and can develop and deliver their work as either an essay, a report on original research, or an artefact (practical work). Some of my favourite projects have been: designing and building a surfboard tailored to specific wave and wind patterns; a new type of air purifier for low-income countries; the significance of lay magistrates in the UK justice system; and research into the impact of sleep deprivation on the daily lives of late adolescents.

Does an EPQ require a lot of work?

It does! Around 120 hours over the course of a year (January to December), of which at least 90 hours is independent work. Whilst the project ‘product’ – essay, research report or artefact – counts for 50% of the marks available, the other 50% of the marks is awarded for supporting documentation showing how a project has been developed from inception to completion, so they’ve got to be prepared to put the work in from the outset and over the long term.

Why should a student consider doing an EPQ?

In terms of personal development, EPQs provide an unparalleled opportunity to take a deep dive into a topic – either academic or non-academic – in which students have a genuine interest. This gives students something significant to discuss in personal statements and interviews for university applications. Plus, its basis in coursework means that students can (and must) be creative and self-driven to a degree that isn’t possible with more conventional qualifications. The skills utilised in undertaking an EPQ are a fantastic foundation for future academic and career success.

What skills do students learn when they do an EPQ?

Students get the opportunity to develop skills in research, critical thinking, independent learning and project management in a hands-on way. In my view and experience, it is one of the best ways for someone to bridge the gap between secondary school and university.

Do universities like students who have an EPQ?

The majority of universities are very positive about the EPQ, and including it in a UCAS application can give candidates the competitive edge in what is an ever-evolving and increasingly competitive applications environment. More than half of Russell Group Universities state that applicants studying for an EPQ are more likely to receive an offer than those that don’t. On many courses, around half of these Universities offer lower grade requirements to students studying for an EPQ, contingent on the student being predicted an A or A*. Above and beyond those statistics, the EPQ can also be drawn on for personal statements and interviews, helping students stand out from their peers.

How does Abingdon support those taking an EPQ?

All students are enrolled in a programme of lectures and workshops through which they develop the skills necessary to make their EPQ a success – whether that’s project management, undertaking research, evaluating resources, writing etc. Every student is appointed a supervisor who provides a check-in point and whose role it is to provide feedback, to sign off each stage of the project log and ultimately to mark the completed project. Supervision is critical to the success of projects, and the EPQ benefits from teachers volunteering their time and expertise. Students have access to extensive research support from a wide range of print and online resources and the specialist skills I’ve acquired over the course of a decade as an academic researcher.

What is your hope for the future uptake of EPQs?

I would like every student to recognise the value of an EPQ and so consider doing one and, with nearly two thirds of our current Lower Sixth registered for the qualification, I’d say we’re nearly there.

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