University challenges

14 September 2015

EPQThe University of Southampton is supporting sixth form students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) to give them a taste of what academic life is like – and what skills they will require – at a research-intensive institution. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

The challenges around transition from primary to secondary school are well-known. What is not so obvious, and is often forgotten and neglected, is the other huge leap for young people during their education: transferring from sixth form or further education (FE) colleges to university.

“A levels will get students into university but they are not designed to be the ultimate preparation for doing a degree,” says Dr Emma Thompson, leader of the University of Southampton’s Learn with US Transition Programme.

“The way young people are expected to approach higher education can be daunting because they will not be used to this way of working.”

The university works with secondary schools, both independent and maintained, to address some of the issues around transition. It was recently one of a number of HE institutions, together with the AQA examination board, to call for greater take-up and awareness of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), an optional single piece of work done by sixth formers to demonstrate their ability to prepare, plan and research a particular topic.

Southampton helps sixth formers at its partner schools to work on their EPQs, making its library and resources available for set periods of time and teaching students the skills that they need to make their university education a success. An applicant seeking to do a degree there may find they need slightly lower grades than the typical conditional offer if their EPQ achieves a grade A or A*.

“The EPQ teaches independent learning and research and how to manage time,” Dr Thompson says. “Students choose the question they want to discuss and have to research it, interpret the information and sources they use and analyse them. Their teachers will not chase them up to get the work done, though they might have supervisory meetings, so they must learn to manage their time.

“They learn to reference and compile a bibliography, introducing them to the idea of academic integrity and to the construction of an argument based on solid evidence and not just supposition and opinion.”

Drop-in sessions
At Churcher’s College in Petersfield, Hampshire, about a quarter of sixth formers do the EPQ and many begin during the summer holiday following their GCSEs.

“Emma helped us set up the EPQ every time by explaining to students what it’s all about,” says Paul Shipley, the school’s EPQ programme coordinator. “As well as having their day at the university, she does drop-in sessions on aspects such as presentation of work.

“It is important that sixth formers start picking up the skills they’re going to need at university so we make it a taught element. Crucially, it is not just an academic experience but a journey on which they can reflect and consider how they might have done things differently and how they might have managed the exercise better. It is all good preparation.

“It is also good for those students who, perhaps, don’t perform well in examinations. The EPQ gives them an added dimension and I think it will only become bigger and more important with linear examinations coming back. We have also had some universities make lower grade offers because of the EPQ.”

Anastasja Dmytruk, a 19 year-old student originally from Ukraine, did her EPQ on Alzheimer’s disease because she wanted to do a degree linked to medicine. Her paper looked at issues such as the development of the disease, potential cures and how it may be avoided.

“The subject was closely related to do what I do in biology but it was an opportunity to do something for myself that is not taught,” she says. “It taught me how to research and think for myself as well as research skills and how to manage my time.”

At Thomas Hardye School, in Dorchester, Dorset, about 40 (10 per cent) of the sixth form will do the EPQ with support from Southampton.

“Here, it’s not about the most able students doing the EPQ but the ones who are the most self-motivated,” says Katie Taylor, head of Year 13.

The current Year 12 students have recently applied to do their EPQs.

“We review student effort and grade them from 1 to 5; no one with less than 3 will be accepted to do an EPQ because of the level of work involved,” Katie says.

“In their applications, the students have to outline their ideas and talk them through to ensure they are work-able. Once accepted, the students are matched with a mentor who will guide them through the work.”

Skills gap
Thomas Hardye EPQ students also have their day in the University of Southampton’s library but Dr Emma Thompson and her team also help those students who are not doing the qualification.

“We do Guided Independent Learning for all our sixth formers, not just those doing EPQ; staff from the university come in to discuss research and the skills gap between A levels and university as well as the importance of recognising sources that are reliable when carrying out research online.

“They also do a session on presenting their work to the best effect. These aspects are beneficial for all students, not just those doing EPQ.” In the last couple of years, students who have missed the odd grade at A level have occasionally been accepted to their first-choice universities on the strength of their EPQ result.

Ella Hegenbarth, 18, obtained a grade A in her EPQ on political influences in French cinema in the 1930s and wants to study modern languages.

“I had to write in a more analytical style than I would if I were writing a normal essay. It was quite hard trying to find the films I needed to see and it required a lot of research, but watching them was really interesting and quite recreational, too,” she says.

“I think the EPQ definitely gives you an edge when applying to universities.” Katie Taylor says she has noticed students growing as learners.

“They have done a piece of work which is completely unique and given a presentation to their peers, parents and staff which is a huge confidence and ego boost.

“Having a teacher advise you on how to study or do a piece of work is not the same as someone coming in from a university to do it. That has a certain gravitas. More universities need to do this sort of outreach work as the students get so much out of it.”

Dorothy Lepkowska is a Freelance Education Journalist

Further reading
For further information on EPQs, see:




Find out more
The Learn with US Transition Programme uses current research to create engaging lectures, seminars, academic skills workshops and think-tank contests. Each element is based on current affairs to ensure that the content is relevant to all students. Its aim is to encourage students’ critical thinking, curiosity, scholarship, reflection and independent learning. The programme can accompany existing learning such as General Studies and Critical Thinking, can be tailored to complement a particular subject area or can even form part of a higher education programme, club or society. Although the programme is based in Southampton, it can be delivered at your own institution and can be tailored to suit any size group. The programme also offers an online course (or massive open online course (MOOC)) called ‘Developing Your Research Project,’ which is run through FutureLearn ( It has been designed specifically for the EPQ. For more information, email or visit