Skip to content

Blog post

The Higher Project Qualification: It doesn’t matter what you’ve learned. At the end of the day, it’s the grade

Jenny Clements

This article is part of the BERA Blog special issue ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’ (read more).

When asked by two year 11 students how my presentation was coming on for my first BCF conference, my reply was, ‘Academically bloated’ – an image that I extended (and intended) to show how I was overindulging on educational curiosity. Their response: ‘I’m glad that you’ve been eating well, Miss’. (Note to self: clearly, we haven’t quite grasped extended metaphors yet; return to this next week). I start with this exchange to introduce myself as a practitioner researcher, which does not make me a better teacher necessarily, but it does make me a different type of teacher (I am still unsure which identity came first, and whether or not it really matters). Both inside and outside of the classroom I have a particular research interest in exploring what students, regardless of academic ability, might value when taking part in research qualifications such as the Higher Project Qualification (HPQ).

‘Opportunities for students to take part in research qualifications at key stages 3 and 4 are not only restricted to some students, but are in fact disappearing for all from the curriculum.’

The HPQ now finds itself in the context of a shrunken curriculum. Research qualifications such as the HPQ, in which students carry out an independent piece of research in an area of their choice, must demonstrate the potential value that they have for students, as they occupy a position outside of the priority subjects that dominate the school curriculum. Opportunities for students to take part in research qualifications at key stages 3 and 4 are not only restricted to some students, but are in fact disappearing for all from the curriculum. The exclusive nature of the curriculum that Apple (2013) describes is persuasive, highlighting the hidden curriculum as a marketplace that displays the inadequacies of an education system whereby schools function in order to maintain hierarchical structures in society: schools prepare students to take their predefined places. However, the current situation is arguably much worse, as many students find themselves in some way disadvantaged, irrespective of class, as education moves towards what might be considered a dwindling creative curriculum (Young, 2009: 13). The stalls in the marketplace are not hidden but disappearing.

One particular examination board outlines ‘changing customer needs’, ‘evolving business aims’ and having to ‘withdraw from this market’ to explain why the HPQ will be dropped from summer 2019 – others will inevitably follow suit. The neoliberal rhetoric is uncomfortable and clinical, but what is more concerning is that it appears there will be no substitute for this type of learning experience when this research qualification is cast aside. Business had been good: the Joint Council for Qualifications (2011–2016) reported that the qualification reached its highest number of awards in 2011, with 21,888 students receiving the GCSE equivalent of A*–C grades. However, the HPQ has experienced a clear decline in numbers (UCAS, 2017) with candidates being entered for this qualification in 2016 dropping to 4,829 – a 14.2 per cent decrease from 2015 (5,631).

The Higher Project Qualification does not have the same impact on school results as the Extended Project Qualification. Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) students have the possibility of benefiting from the qualification’s faciliatory nature of lowering some university offers, whereby an A* achieved in an Extended Project Qualification could provide a student with an alternative offer of ABB rather than AAB. The faciliatory aspect of the EPQ makes the qualification measurable, where schools are able to include students’ EPQ grades in their level 3 value-added scores, contributing to the 16–18 performance tables for schools (, 2017). Measurability is not the same for the HPQ, as it is worth half a GCSE and is not included in the Progress 8 measures. Why the word ‘half’ is ever used to suggest the high levels of self-efficacy and application of new knowledge that this qualification demands I will never understand.

Who was it that said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you’ve learned. At the end of the day, it’s the grade’? A year 10 student.

I can only apologise to them for this.


Apple M (2013) Knowledge, Power and Education: The selected works of Michael W. Apple, London: Routledge

Joint Council for Qualifications (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016) ‘GCSE, Project and Entry Level trends [year]’, Assessment and Qualification Alliance. (accessed 3 May 2017).

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service [UCAS] (2017) ‘Higher (Level 2) Project qualification’, webpage. (accessed 16 September 2017).

Young M (2009) ‘What are schools for?’, in Daniels H, Lauder H, and Porter J (eds) Knowledge, Values and Educational Policy: A Critical Perspective, London: Routledge: 10–18

More related content