Sixth-form 'thesis' set for lift-off

6th October 2006 at 01:00
* AQA trial sets 5,000-word essays as a bolt-on to exams in 2008

"How the mathematics of Newton and Einstein shaped society's perceptions of the modern world"; and "Existentialist perceptions of the second sex: feminism in Simone de Beauvoir's The Blood of Others and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason".

No, these are not PhD theses. They are the titles for projects by a group of 17-year-olds, who have embarked on an exercise which is likely to become a feature of sixth forms across England.

Farnborough sixth form college, in Hampshire, is among the first in the country to begin trials, with the AQA exam board, of a new course: the "extended project". It is to be launched alongside A-levels from 2008.

Teenagers will be given the chance to do research on a subject of their choice, with guidance from their teacher, and then to write up their experiences in dissertations. Art projects and scientific experiments will also feature.

Successful projects will earn students UCAS points and could count as the equivalent of an AS-level. The course's supporters say that it could be even more valuable, in demonstrating to university admissions tutors that applicants have the skills they will need as undergraduates.

At Farnborough, work began in June, when 120 of the college's 1,229 Year 12 students embarked on their journey by discussing suggested titles with their teachers or "supervisors". The projects are intended to embrace two subject areas to try to break the students out of the rigidity of conventional A-level disciplines.

Having to spend some of their summer holidays on the task did not seem to dampen the sixth-formers' enthusiasm. Essays, of around 5,000 words, must be submitted by half-term.

Teachers mark the work to a set of guidelines, with moderation at the school from the AQA board. Students will gain certificates, with the best projects earning distinctions and merits.

Marie-Clare Thomas, who is analysing whether the meaning of the Spanish playwright Lorca gets lost in translation, said: "If you're interested in something, it's not that difficult to be motivated to study it."

The trial has thrown up two potential problems: ensuring marks between the projects are consistent and giving teachers the extra time to act as supervisors.

Jon Marks, Farnborough's director of arts and languages who has led the project, said that staff had been given time off in lieu to compensate.

Each supervises two students.

Another potential hurdle is plagiarism. But Mr Marks said that while GCSE assignments are easily downloaded from the web because so many pupils do the same ones, the extended project would be more individual, meaning that students could only cheat in this way if exactly the same research has been done before.

Mr Marks said the college would remind students to give references for sources and also put assignments through anti-plagiarism software.

AQA and its rival board, Edexcel, will spend the next two years testing the extended project's introduction alongside mainstream exams. It seems likely to become a major part of sixth-form life, and these Farnborough students are happy about that.

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