Beyond the essay

Performance and artefact EPQs, rather than the more traditional dissertation, hold the key to lasting and accessible educational outcomes, argues Martin Reader. Leaders, take note
8th June 2018, 12:00am
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Martin Reader


Beyond the essay

As we were holding on by our fingertips to the brink of February half-term, I suddenly re-gained perspective and energy when I saw genuine education in action: the final productions of two performance extended project qualifications (EPQs). Much has been written about the value of the EPQ for university preparation, but most teachers and students, including me, are more familiar with the dissertation and investigation forms of assessment rather than performance and artefact EPQs ( I think this needs to change.

The epiphany for me was witnessing how the combination of intellectual rigour, organisation and practical skills demanded by performance and artefact EPQs develops and showcases skills that are relevant for university and the workplace. It was also because I saw how they are accessible for the most academic student but also for the one who might feel overwhelmed by a project of 6,000+ words.

For those who do not know, an EPQ is worth half an A level and students can choose a topic of study of their choice. It is assessed through a dissertation or "performance or artefact" that is accompanied by a short research report. Schools tend typically to push the dissertation, but my eyes have been opened to the benefits of opting for artefacts and performances instead.

A Drop in the 1920s was a piece of immersive theatre with a script written by a student based on her favourite novel, The Great Gatsby. An audience of no more than four was led blindfolded by the lead actress through rooms, with music from the 1920s and news recordings about prohibition playing in the background to the party at Mr Gatsby's.

We drank "champagne", chatted with Nick, Jordan and other characters from the novel, who revealed their neuroses, loves and aloof observations. We audience members even learned how to do the Charleston - my ineptitude being a source of great amusement!

We witnessed a marital row, mysterious phone calls, a suddenly blackened room, heard a murder and were questioned by an aggressive police detective.

Those who know the novel will begin to glimpse the intellectual skill involved in the adaptation, not to mention the practical organisation required to deliver all of the elements. Afterwards, the feedback form asked for our impressions on the effectiveness of the immersion, to aid the writer's reflections on whether she had achieved her purpose.

Audience feedback

Meanwhile, in a very different performance, two students used Brechtian and verbatim techniques, along with film and song composed by the students to explore the age of medical consent. Using a news article about a 16-year-old Jehovah's witness who lost his life by refusing to accept a blood transfusion, the performance explored the emotions of the consultant, who had no choice but to obey the law, and the mother, who wanted to override her son's decision even though she had brought him up in the faith.

In this instance, audience feedback was used to determine whether the distancing effects had achieved their purpose in drawing attention to the ethical issues and whether the drama had altered our views on the age of medical consent. Neither performance would have been successful without the three terms of research, preparation and practical organisation that had preceded them, nor a deep engagement with the ideas and commitment to the excellence of the outcome.

These are just a couple of examples of practical EPQs. Others we have seen include a film exploring the dangers of legal highs; a photographic exhibition challenging attitudes to transgender images in fashion; the refurbishment of a motorbike; and a photographic sixth-form prospectus.

I have witnessed many of our students who struggle with more conventional ways of working confidently show their thinking and learning from the project-making process. A performance or an artefact that is to be presented to peers and teachers is, for some students, a greater stimulus than a dissertation that will be read and marked by one teacher.

And surely working in this way is more akin than A levels to employment and much of university study, where we work more collaboratively, develop ideas over time and refine outcomes, and where innovators and researchers set their own boundaries. In that world, we do not have to memorise everything we have encountered over two years for a brief exam, nor jump through a series of assessment hoops, as if we best show our understanding by repeating what the mark scheme says.

What a shame that the rushed nature of A-level curriculum change did not embrace different forms of assessment that allow a greater range of skills to be demonstrated. This alone is a good reason for encouraging students to take on a project as part of their sixth-form programme.

Sadly, the words education and examination have become too often interchangeable. What is great about the EPQ in all its forms is that students learn how to think, plan, reflect, apply knowledge and genuinely find an expertise where the boundaries provide direction rather than control it.

Being led blindfolded down the corridors above my office, I was reminded of Keats' letter to his friend John Reynolds comparing human life to a mansion of many apartments. After infancy, we move to the "Chamber of Maiden Thought", a place of intoxicating light and wonder, where we are tempted to stay. Off this chamber are a large number of dark passageways leading we do not know where. The courageous act is to begin to explore them. Education really should lead us down unexpected and fulfilling avenues.

Martin Reader is headteacher at Cranleigh School

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