As one of the UK's biggest exam boards, AQA is used to receiving phone calls from worried students.
But this was one query it had certainly never heard before. The student in question, qualifications manager Charlotte Christie recalls, was concerned about whether his submission for the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) - a design for a lighting system - would still be valid.
"The problem was," Christie explains, "that he had sold the lighting system he had designed to John Lewis. He checked with AQA if it was still OK to submit this."
The student need not have worried. "We agreed to waive the copyright," Christie says, smiling.
The opportunity for sixth-formers to immerse themselves in a research project of their choosing is by no means the norm. While the new national curriculum is still very much a work in progress, education secretary Michael Gove has made clear his desire to return to focusing on key facts and figures at the expense of a skills-based curriculum.
With coursework being scrapped in favour of exams, project work is becoming less and less significant in A level and GCSE programmes. As an Ofsted report published this spring warns, "the removal of coursework means pupils have no experience of tackling extended mathematical tasks at GCSE".
So the EPQ stands alone in opposition to Gove's ideological purging of coursework, offering an unparalleled degree of autonomy and flexibility for learners. And it is not just proving popular with schools; more and more university admissions tutors have expressed support for it.
The most popular EPQ, at level 3, is offered by the big three exam boards - OCR, Edexcel and AQA - and is equivalent to an AS level. Although extended projects are now offered to younger students at levels 1 and 2, the EPQ was designed precisely to help older students make the transition from the close supervision of the school environment to the independent learning that is required in the academy.
The projects are, as Edexcel puts it, "largely self-directed": students are free to choose their own topic, although they must demonstrate that it is "academically useful", and the expectation is that it will be related either to their study or career plans.
The independent study necessitated by the research, according to Edexcel, helps students to "become more critical, reflective and independent learners", by encouraging them to develop their decision-making and problem-solving skills and, at the same time, cultivating their "creativity, initiative and enterprise".
Most commonly, it takes the form of a 5,000-word dissertation. This could be structured as an academic essay, research or academic report, or an exploration of a hypothesis.
Not surprisingly, the titles chosen by students are eclectic. Examples submitted through Edexcel range from "Are American fundamentalist religious beliefs partly responsible for global warming?" to "Do teaching assistants have a beneficial effect on the attainment of learners in the primary and secondary FE sectors?"
AQA has received submissions with titles such as "Police and practice of hospitals with regard to MRSA" and "The automation of bank statement analysis".
But if you thought the range of dissertations was impressive, that is only the half of it. Instead of an academic essay, students also have the option of submitting a music or drama composition, report or artefact.
As a result of the EPQ's flexibility, it has sparked a host of weird and wonderful entries, including films, plays and fashion collections. One student at Conyers School in Yarm, North Yorkshire, submitted a giant cartoon of his school.
Other projects to have been highly rated by examiners include a stop-motion animation about a teddy's adventures in the snow and a dance show based on the theme of slavery.
From the ashes of the Diploma
The EPQ allows students to focus on their passions and interests and, as a result, AQA's Christie describes it as "a real success story". The numbers seem to back up her claim. It was launched in 2007, and 12 months later was being offered in 59 schools. This year it was taken by 24,700 students in more than 1,200 schools across the country.
But some may be surprised to learn that the increasingly popular programme has its origins in the most maligned qualification of recent years: the Diploma.
The Diploma cost almost #163;300 million, and former education secretary Ed Balls predicted it would become "the qualification of choice". However, it has unequivocally failed to revolutionise the world of post-16 education as its supporters hoped it would.
Designed to unite academic and vocational learning, the Diploma has stagnated since the coalition came to power. Indeed, last year most of the major exam boards announced that they were planning to stop offering it.
"Nobody really wanted it, did they?" Professor Robert Coe, an assessment expert at Durham University, said when its effective demise was announced in November. "Schools, colleges and the consumers of exams - employers and universities - never seemed to buy in."
But the extended project, previously a compulsory element of Diploma courses in England and Wales, somehow seems to have avoided being tarred with the same brush. While the Diploma is now virtually extinct, the EPQ is thriving as a qualification in its own right.
With coalition ministers quick to complain that too many students leave school unprepared for the academic rigour of higher education, the EPQ offers what many experts believe to be the most effective means of bridging the gap.
"It's all about individual research, helping students set their own topics and titles," Christie says. "Maths students, for example, have done some really exciting things to put the theory they have learned into practice, such as looking at the science behind simple things such as throwing tennis balls."
At Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, around eight students take the EPQ each year. Recent dissertations have included a study of women's fashion during the First World War, the use of the wave pattern in modern architecture and attitudes towards acupuncture in the UK and Singapore. Another student even examined the vernacular architecture used in the dale where he lives.
Steve McArdle, head of the school's sixth-form, believes that the qualification offers opportunities that are not available to students through the traditional A-level programme.
"If a student wants to take medicine, for example," he says, "they can take the sciences in school, but they would otherwise not be doing anything really medical. It allows students who don't have a background in a particular field to demonstrate enthusiasm and aptitude for it.
"It's interesting seeing how much they learn from the whole process. You hear them saying, 'If I had done this earlier, I would have realised I was going down a dead end,' and things like that. It helps them learn about decision-making and time management. It's great to see how much they have matured."
The EPQ also fulfils a more urgent need: helping students to get a place at university.
"It can mean they get an easy ride at interview if the interviewer says, 'That's an interesting title, tell me about it,'" McArdle explains. "Everyone I have spoken to at universities has been very enthusiastic about it. No one has asked: 'What's that, then?' Academics seem to feel this is a really positive step. I don't know anyone who thinks this is a bad thing."
Not surprisingly, Christie is in agreement. "Most students are generally developing skills in a field they already have an interest in or want to pursue at university. They have to show detailed evidence of the practical work they've done, writing up the research and a production log. They have to show the journey they have gone through and how they have managed their project."
Learning and performance
The EPQ is not just for students who want something to put down on their university application form. At Matthew Moss High in Rochdale, Lancashire, headteacher Andrew Raymer felt that something needed to be done to improve his students' learning experience.
After much deliberation, the school started to dedicate a third of the week to pupils' own projects through Years 7 and 8. In Year 9, they take a level 2 EPQ, worth half a GCSE.
"This is a school that has been interested in learning for a long time," Raymer explains. "Most schools aren't, they're interested in performance." But performance, too, seems to have improved as a result of this approach. The current Year 10 cohort is predicted to achieve the school's best GCSE grades yet.
A key element of the extended project is the presentation that students must make at the end of the course, in order to demonstrate that they can explain their work to someone who isn't a specialist in the field. "This shows they can turn very specific work into something which anybody can access," Christie explains.
But with the EPQ's raison d'etre being to cultivate an individual's research skills, does it mean that their teachers have the chance to put their feet up and leave the students to it?
Not quite, Christie says. Thirty hours' teaching is included in the qualification. This time, she explains, tends to be "front-loaded", taking place before the individual research begins. This gives teachers the chance to give their students a thorough introduction to the craft of research, from planning skills and project management to how to structure an academic essay and what to include in a bibliography. "This is invaluable to the students, and helps them get started before they go it alone," Christie says.
John Morgan, executive head of Conyers School and former president of the Association of School and College Leaders, is a passionate advocate of the EPQ. As a board member of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), he is acutely aware of what universities are looking for in prospective students. The EPQ, he believes, ticks all the boxes.
"It's just a good preparation for university. It can help many young people benefit from reflecting on what they have learned. They learn to carry out research, planning, discovering the outcome and presenting the results in a way that's verifiable. You can show you have enriched your study with evidence of your skills. It brings it to life."
At Conyers, students start to work on their projects towards the end of Year 12. They are assigned a personal tutor and decide on their title, before carrying out the research during the summer break. The project is written up during September and submitted in October in time to be included in students' personal statement, a key part of their Ucas applications. Even better, this allows them to switch their focus back on to revising for their final year A-level exams.
But the extended project is not for everyone, Morgan admits. "Some will choose to do it, some decide part-way through they would prefer to concentrate on their A levels. Some students might think it's too much to take on. If they think their results might suffer, we tell them to give it a miss. We don't think it would be right to make everyone do it. We let them decide."
Making it mainstream
While the EPQ - in theory, at least - demonstrates exactly the qualities universities are looking for, the qualification's relationship with higher education is complex.
An A* in the EPQ is worth more points in the Ucas tariff than an A (the top grade) at AS level. As Christie explains, it is highly valued by many institutions. "Most universities advocate it, as it's the one qualification that can bridge the further educationhigher education skills gap better than anything else."
Universities offer support to schools, and some allow students access to libraries and journals to assist with their research. The University of Manchester puts students in touch with its post-doctoral researchers where their work overlaps, allowing the EPQ students to make reference to their contacts within the academy in their university applications. But more than this, Christie believes that the EPQ allows students to get a genuine taste of what life studying for a degree is actually like.
"They are better prepared for university in terms of their academic skills, data handling and presentation. It helps them understand the application of what they know in an unfamiliar complex. They learn how to use a library, how to reference properly, and how to take on a large project from beginning to end."
But while many universities have a policy on the EPQ, not all of them formally recognise it. Indeed, while there is no limit on the number of students that universities can enrol with two As and a B at A level, the EPQ does not yet count towards this target. Morgan describes this as a "clumsy omission". "Doing an EPQ has more merit than a general studies AS level, but it's not recognised by (universities minister) David Willetts in that way."
Similarly, Morgan feels that some universities have been slow to officially acknowledge the qualification in their admissions policies. "We need greater recognition from admissions tutors across the board. The danger is where it doesn't get recognised, it might lead to students sitting an extra AS level instead.
"The EPQ has been a big success and a great addition to the post-16 curriculum, but what if a university effectively says: 'It's pointless you doing it because we're not going to give accreditation'?"
A cursory glance at the websites of many Russell Group universities seems to confirm Morgan's suspicion. The University of Oxford, for instance, acknowledges that the EPQ "will provide an applicant with the opportunity to develop research and academic skills relevant for study at Oxford", but explicitly states that taking it "will not be a condition of any offer. Candidates are instead advised to simply refer to it in their Ucas personal statement."
Durham University takes a similar stance. "The extended project will not form part of the entry requirements for undergraduate degree programmes at Durham University. Nonetheless a high grade in this award will be considered a positive attribute when selecting among applicants with similar levels of overall achievement," the university's website states.
In contrast, the University of Warwick states that it would normally accept an EPQ in place of an AS level for courses where a specific fourth AS subject is required. But this level of formal recognition seems to be unusual as far as the top universities are concerned.
The extended project, Morgan believes, deserves better. "They are not easy Ucas points. I am absolutely certain my most able students' personal statements are greatly enhanced by the work they have done. But you have a lot more chance of getting in through doing an extra AS level than taking an extended project if it's not in their policy statement.
"It would be nice to see it in universities' entry criteria to show they really believe in it."
Platitudes from universities, it seems, will only get the EPQ so far. If it is to really take off, they will have to put their money where their mouth is.
How the EPQ has grown:
59 schools in 2008
1,200 schools in 2012
Examples of EPQ dissertations:
Is Twenty20 cricket destroying the sporting ethos of cricket?
For what reasons do people commit crimes?
Attitudes towards the death penalty in the UK, USA and China
Is the media to blame for negative body image?
How has English affected the German language?
Support for the EPQ offered by universities:
The University of Wolverhampton has provided a distance learning toolkit, offering online support for students.
Brunel University regularly invites students to attend information sessions about relevant academic skills along with the University of Essex, which has also written its own guide to the EPQ for prospective students.
The University of Southampton works closely with sixth-forms, offering lectures, seminars and workshops.
The University of Hertfordshire provides a research module for students working on extended projects, with advice on issues such as critical thinking, bias, plagiarism and referencing.
EPQ (level 3)
A* - 70 points
A - 60
B - 50
C - 40
D - 30
E - 20
A - 60 points
B - 50
C - 40
D - 30
E - 20.