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Ignite their passions with projects

Only a few years ago, coursework was being blamed for the dumbing down of A levels and GCSEs. The theory was that if you got rid of it, students would spend more time doing strict essays in a good old-fashioned exam hall. Its removal was also guaranteed to stretch students because none of them would be able to rely on an overly helpful hand from their teachers or parents.

This received wisdom was accepted by politicians, universities and, indeed, many teachers. Few defended coursework except for the exam boards - but what did they know? Besides, they had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. So coursework went.

Fast-forward to the present and a handful of Ofsted reports have warned that certain exams have dumbed down slightly in recent years. One key reason for this was (drum roll, please ...) the abolition of coursework. Inspectors noted that pupils were no longer being stretched in maths and geography by extended coursework projects, which had previously allowed them to apply their subject knowledge at a more advanced level. D'oh!

While we wait for coursework to make a comeback, there is a silver lining in the recent rise of Extended Project Qualifications (EPQs). These have given students a chance to explore their passions and produce work that often goes beyond the confines of exam essays - be it on films, mobile phone apps or even a lighting system bought by John Lewis (see pages 4-7).

But we should not limit these opportunities to those planning to get a formal EPQ, or even to secondary students. Among this year's YouTube hits has been the tale of a nine-year-old boy, Caine Monroy, who constructed his own arcade from cardboard and wire in the back of his father's auto parts shop, complete with a range of home-made games and a system of visitor passes and prize vouchers.

Giving young people the freedom to pursue their own projects may be a risk, but it can lead to the extraordinary. Of course, the best schools know that already - and they do not need coursework or EPQs as an excuse to let pupils' passions into their curriculum.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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