The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Stanier

A character-building curriculum in 12 easy steps

Great Torrington School redesigned its Year 7 curriculum to unleash passions and embed character. Assistant headteacher John Stanier explains how you can do the same.


Building characters, one opportunity at a time (picture credit: W_Minshull)

Our Year 7 pupils don’t ‘do’ individual subjects. They undertake six challenges throughout the year, from building an aeroplane for a governor to recreating a global pandemic with doctors from Exeter Medical School.

This project-based learning curriculum is a great way to develop pupils’ resilience, grit and independence. It equips them with a passion for learning and the skills to tackle the challenging new GCSEs.

Now in its fourth year, this curriculum has contributed to a 20 per cent increase in admission in Year 7. We were proud to be awarded the DfE Character Award for the south west in recognition of the innovative and effective way we develop our pupils.

Many colleagues from other schools have been inspired by our curriculum, but have hesitated to implement it in their own settings as the task seems so daunting. With this in mind, here is a step-by-step guide to developing a project-based learning curriculum for your own school, that will truly develop your pupils’ character and learning skills.

Avengers assemble!

Identify and recruit a small group of teachers who will seize this opportunity to rethink the curriculum. This will be a unique professional development opportunity, and a chance for them to share their ideas for best practice. This is the type of whole-school change that is usually reserved to those on a NPQH course.

Enlisting participants from all levels of the staff hierarchy has the added benefit of making the decision process more democratic.

Research, research, research

Read as much of the latest academic research around what makes the most significant impact on learning and how the brain learns. You must have an evidence base for any changes you wish to make.

If there is not reliable evidence that a certain change will work – then the chances are, it won’t work. A strong evidence base would also prove useful for justifying changes to staff or parents.

How do young people 'learn to learn' - and how can teachers harness the potential of metacognition? Optimus members can download our metacognition toolkit from the Knowledge Centre. 

Day tripper

Visit other schools that have re-imagined their curriculum. You are of course welcome to come to north Devon and visit us, but more and more schools have embraced the RSA Opening Minds curriculum or the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC). Learn from their successes and struggles.

Needs must

Do not be tempted by existing ‘off the shelf’ curriculum models. Explore the needs of your pupils and the needs of your community, and create a curriculum that is tailored to them. We were tempted to adopt the RSA Opening Minds curriculum but felt that its urban, business focus was not relevant to pupils at a school in Devon.

We decided that our pupils needed to develop their literacy, independence, reflectiveness and creativity - so we designed our own curriculum accordingly.


During the development phase, engage constantly with the local community. We visited every one of our feeder primary schools to explore what they taught the pupils at years 5 and 6, and what their staff thought should be vital ingredients in a new curriculum that could smooth transition for the pupils.

Furthermore, we visited many of our local businesses to see what qualities they felt needed developing in young people and to explore how they could help to deliver a project-based learning curriculum.

Local business leaders are now instrumental to delivering the new curriculum – from being the ‘dragons’ in the Dragons’ Den project to having their portraits painted for a book about leadership that the pupils are publishing.

Ignite passions

Use the passions of your staff as the foundation of your curriculum. If staff are not excited about what they're teaching, then your new pupils will not be excited about what they are learning. Use a training day to ask staff to design their own challenges and get them to share their ideas with their colleagues in a ‘marketplace’.

We used the best of these ideas as the foundations for our six challenges. For example, some of our staff were science fiction buffs and so one of our challenges is based around founding a new colony on Alpha Centauri.


In our curriculum model, we have three members of staff from different subject areas delivering each challenge over six weeks. This requires staff to work with one group for extended periods of time (last year I had one group all day on a Friday!)

Staff will also need to teach in an entirely different way, in some cases beyond their own subject area. This is wonderful for the pupils as it is a way of learning that they are familiar with from junior school. But to secondary school staff, it can be terrifying.

Ensure that you allocate resources and time to training staff, so that they can confidently teach a curriculum for the twenty-first century.

Without this, you will simply have traditional lessons wrapped up in a very fancy package.

Keep to time

At every stage of development, ensure that your implementation group communicates with the person writing the timetable. I am not well-versed in the dark art of timetabling, but our superb timetabler once muttered that ‘nothing is really impossible’. 

Yet many visionary ideas can fall at the first hurdle. If it can’t be timetabled, it can’t happen.

A head in the clouds

Creating a new curriculum is a team effort, and a considerable one at that. With time precious, secondary school staff can rarely afford to hold unnecessary meetings on top of their existing workloads. Take advantage of cloud-based tools to make collaboration, and life, much easier.

Using Google Docs, a team of three can write a scheme of work simultaneously from different locations, and share thoughts via the comments section. We also use community pin-boards such as Padlet to brainstorm ideas, and maintain a central 'wiki' to store finalised projects or resources.

Growth mindset

Have no preconceptions of what a Year 7 pupil can and can’t do. Ensure every project has a challenging, real-world outcome: the pupils will rise to your expectations. We have had staff digging out their degree-level electronics books to help a child develop a sonar-assisted white stick for the blind, and pupils delivering academic talks to an audience of over two hundred people.

Have no preconceptions of what a Year 7 pupil can and can’t do

Not to mention the pupils building a light aircraft that a governor will pilot.

The sky really is the limit!

Bin it! 

If there is something in your curriculum that does not ignite a love of learning in your pupils or doesn’t challenge them and develop them, then don’t do it.

Always ask the question 'What would my eleven year-old self have loved to have learnt?' We have the opportunity in years 7 and 8 to inspire a love of learning and develop key skills and character in our pupils.

Always ask the question 'What would my eleven year-old self have loved to have learnt?'

The new GCSE specifications will ensure they have many uninspiring and ‘necessary’ lessons in their school career, so don’t inflict these experiences on younger pupils without extensive evidence that it will have some impact.


To introduce an innovative curriculum that embeds skills and character you need to have a certain amount of grit and resilience yourself. Take every opportunity to present the evidence, reasoning and vision for a new curriculum to those members of the school community who don’t understand why the Victorian model of learning isn’t relevant today. Seeing their children thrive will make all the difference.

Our community is now very proud of our ‘learner’s baccalaureate’ curriculum, and many of its members ask why more schools don’t implement something similar.

I usually answer that it's because there aren't enough brave school leaders out there.

Perhaps I am wrong.

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