Mini-dissertations for sixth formers will open up art history

Start them young. Popova Valeriya. Moscow gallery image via Shutterstock.com

The public response to a recent article in the Guardian on a campaign for more children to study art history at school left me thinking about what more we can do to shrug off stereotypical views of the subject.

Despite some very thoughtful and useful comments, there were some who yet again dismissed art history as: “something well-heeled girls do before you marry a rich man.”

I have been involved for many years in activities to help engage a much larger demographic in the subject I am passionate about. This work has recently been linked to another project to support schools that offer the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).

An EPQ is a mini-dissertation on a subject of a sixth former’s choosing that demonstrates their ability to plan, prepare, research and work autonomously. Introduced in 2008, it is roughly equivalent to an AS level. There were 30,400 students submitting EPQs in 2013 and Russell Group universities such as Leeds are increasingly including it in their offers.

I have already seen the benefit for applicants to our programmes of being engaged in an extended research project before university. I am hoping that the pattern of students coming to art history through the EPQ, even if they have never had the opportunity to study it in school, continues.

The EPQ offers an opportunity for students who cannot take an AS or A level in this subject – given that only 17 state schools in the UK currently offer this – to discover, value and enjoy art history.

Developing independent thinking

Why do I think the EPQ is a good way to help level the playing field? State educated at my local comprehensive, I was given limited guidance as to what to do after school. As an academically capable student, I was encouraged to think about university but given little advice as to where and how.

I ended up arriving in St Andrews to do English. Luckily the Scottish system meant that I was forced to do three subjects in my first two years, and I chose history of art, having been inspired by my school art teacher, for whom I had written a project, much in the same vein of the EPQ, on Van Gogh and Japonisme. I never looked back.

The EPQ allows sixth formers to write a 5-6,000 word project about any subject of their choice. Students also have to produce a log detailing the highs and lows of the research experience, and a presentation exploring their process and results. Throughout, they are encouraged to be thoughtful, critical researchers, to be independent in choosing their subject and their research journey, and to “own” their educational experience.

I am lucky to be able to work with the brightest undergraduates every day, but the school system, driven by league table culture, can encourage students to study “for the test” and put aside information that does not appear to help them achieve what seems to be the chief aim – a high grade.

That is not to say that they are not absolutely capable of independent research and thought. During my ten years as an admissions tutor I deliberately introduced interviews to help test for this. But the system has not encouraged thought for thinking’s sake, nor the pursuit of research simply for the joy of learning. And it has often avoided developing independence and critical thinking – the absolute keys to success on our undergraduate degrees.

These are the skills that the EPQ celebrates, which is why it was at the heart of higher education’s contribution to an OFQUAL 2012 consultation document, on the suitability of A Levels.

But how can we make sure the EPQ bridges the gap between different educational experiences – state and independent – rather than broadening it? How can we ensure students are assessed on their own ability and research, rather than any opportunities they might get through initiatives such as parents’ networks?

I believe that, as the grade criteria are written at the moment, the requirements for independence, critical thinking and research mean that every student, with the right support and academic ability, can achieve a positive result and gain vital experience to help ease their transition to higher education. Every school should offer the opportunity of an EPQ to those academically able and interested.

The focus on independent research and writing would also seem to help students from the state sector, who have often had to drive their own academic success given large class sizes, a lack of facilities, including school libraries.

Universities have an important role to play in supporting students’ success with the EPQ, helping teachers manage the supervision required and explaining why and how the qualification demonstrates the benefits further study has to offer.