Students are responding positively to the RSA’s Opening Minds initiative with improvements in motivation, confidence and attitudes. Teachers are also reaping the benefits. RSA Head of Education Lesley James brings you up to date with developments and new resources.

Practical, developmental research is invariably dangerously exciting. We are all learning as we go along, but the journey is proving to be rewarding and worthwhile. (James, 2002)

Three years after these words were published, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) Opening Minds initiative has proved to be all those things. The report Opening Minds: education for the 21st Century (Bayliss/RSA, 1999) recommended a complete reworking of the curriculum. The RSA competences should become the outcomes of the curriculum. The national curriculum subjects, and their content, would be the means to achieve these outcomes, changing the emphasis of the curriculum from content to process. The teachers’ and students’ roles would also change. This was radical stuff in 1999. Policy and practice have moved a long way since then.

Curriculum network In the first phase of Opening Minds, the RSA worked closely with eight schools. Now we estimate that there are around 50 schools using the competences, or planning to do so within the next 12 months. We have reshaped the project to reflect the substantial interest in it, and in November 2003 we launched the RSA Curriculum Network. Membership is free and most communication is by email. The Network has almost 400 members, most of whom are schools but there are also individuals, university schools of education and others.

The purpose of the network is to:

  • provide practical support for schools keen to implement their own competence-led curriculum
  • provide opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD)
  • provide information about the competences and how they work within the curriculum
  • help schools to collaborate and network effectively.

It does this by:

  • publishing an online newsletter each term
  • organising seminars
  • hosting an online forum.

The seminars are usually held at the RSA in central London and are structured to provide as much practical help and constructive discussion as possible. There is always a presentation by a practitioner, usually a teacher or group of teachers from an Opening Minds school and a more theoretical presentation, which is there to underpin the practice. Delegate numbers are limited to 50 and there is always ample time in the agenda for discussion. Topics featured in the seminars have included:

  • competences and the enterprise agenda
  • impact of the competences on teaching styles and initial teacher education
  • how to plan your Opening Minds curriculum
  • the competences in primary schools.

For a diary of network seminars on, see: The Opening Minds project set out to find answers to five questions:

  • Can the RSA competence-led curriculum motivate students better than the national curriculum does?
  • Can this different way of doing things help pupils improve their achievement?
  • What is involved in practice, for teachers, students and parents, in introducing and developing an unfamiliar curriculum model?
  • What types of assessment are right for this curriculum?
  • What potential does this project have to contribute to the management of change across the whole school?

Opening Minds: taking stock (RSA, 2003) is the evaluation report of the project’s first phase. This was supplemented in July 2005 with Opening Minds, giving young people a better chance (RSA 2005). Both reports are structured round the five research questions. The former goes into more detail about how the first cadre of eight schools reorganised their curriculum. All were secondary schools and most implemented the competences at Key Stage 3. The later report brings readers right up to date with what is happening across the much larger number of schools – primary, middle and secondary – now using the competences. It includes articles written by eight schools, including several that were not in the original project. There is also a discussion piece about methods that we believe are appropriate for assessing the competences.

Impact Opening Minds seems to have had the most impact on motivation – of both teachers and students. That has been the message at every seminar, in every case study and every school visit. It has been referred to in several Ofsted reports on Opening Minds schools. For example:

… the impact on students is very positive in terms of their attitudes and behaviour …

Schools consistently tell us that:

  • pupils are more self-confident – in all situations and learning environments
  • classroom behaviour is better
  • cooperation between students has improved
  • relationships between teachers and pupils are much improved
  • students are more independent, in control of their own learning, and more able and willing to take responsibility for their own learning.

As might be expected, improved student motivation has had a positive impact on their achievement. A school in its second year of using the competences with Year 7 noted that there had been an improvement in spelling and reading ages that had not occurred through teaching the traditional curriculum. At this school there was a significant drop in the number of current Year 8 pupils on the special needs register – the pupils who had experienced the school’s Opening Minds curriculum in Year 7.

The experience of a primary school was that the introduction of the competences ‘changed everything’. Pupils’ satisfaction with the school, measured in a questionnaire, had gone down – but this was because their expectations and demands of the school had gone up.

In one school, where there was a control group during the first exploratory year of using the RSA competences, this cohort has reached Year 9. The students who were in the pilot group are demonstrating higher than expected skill levels, with work often being interpreted at a much higher level than anticipated than would have been the norm in the past.

Challenge For most teachers – primary and secondary – taking competences as a starting point for the creation of curriculum material is a new and rather daunting challenge. Teachers are more accustomed to basing work on a specific area of specialist knowledge. This task will be easier if the team of teachers involved in writing the materials can take the time to ‘unpack’ the competences and develop and share a common understanding of what they mean for themselves and their students. They should then share this common understanding with their students. The role of the competences is central to the benefits that schools have achieved. Opening Minds is not a cross-curricular project. It is about using the competences as the framework and building blocks of the curriculum. They become the aims of the lessons. They help to give the coherence and relevance to the curriculum on which many students have commented favourably, for example: There are 10 personal competences on the wall. They’re all things you need in later life.

Involving students Pupils often mention how much they value being ‘involved’ in their lessons, and appreciate the negotiation that frequently takes place between teacher and pupil about the best way of tackling a particular element of a project. It is this involvement that they often miss in other lessons. Teaching and learning styles change as teaching becomes less didactic. Lessons are much more active and interactive, with the teacher moving from a central – leading – role to one where at least sometimes they are standing to the side, encouraging their students to take centre stage. Opening Minds has improved motivation to learn, helped to reduce classroom disruption, and increased enjoyment in learning in a number of ways:

  • the projects are tailored to the students’ interests
  • there is more active learning within the lessons
  • there is more use of information and communications technology (ICT)
  • the pupils are interested in the themes and projects – they find these more interesting than individual subjects
  • relationships between pupils have improved as have relationships between pupils and staff
  • pupils have become more skilled at handling conflicts between themselves and their peers.

Assessment Many schools have decided that it is not necessary to assess the competences. Their impact on pupils and on the school in general has been noticeable and beneficial and that is sufficient. For other schools, assessment has been a much more thorny issue, which is why our latest report includes a detailed paper on assessment. Our major concern has been to ensure that the developmental nature of the competences is reflected in the assessment methods used by schools. We have been encouraged by the use of self- and peer assessment in many schools. Primary and secondary students have proved themselves able to acquire and use the appropriate language and skills they need to focus on detail rather than on just broad generalities. Several schools have developed logbooks in which pupils can record their growing expertise in using the various competences. They must provide evidence to support these statements that the teacher can verify. Pupils are thus acquiring important skills of analysis, critical thinking and judgement and assessment becomes an important part of the learning process rather than an additional and timeconsuming task.

Organisational issues Opening Minds is not a short-term initiative and it is not an intervention. Its impact will be felt throughout the school. Many teachers believe that using the competences has encouraged, almost forced them, to reflect on how teaching and learning is organised in their school. The structure of the school may also be questioned. Is it the most appropriate or is it just the way things have always been done? Might it be inhibiting effective learning? The school timetable may be one such example: Opening Minds lessons might be two hours in length

  • ideally all year groups would be taught at the same time, in adjacent classrooms
  • all members of the teaching team, comprising teachers of various subjects, might need to be available at the same times.

These are not impossible to organise but if the competences are being used primarily with Year 7, and if Year 7 lessons are not among the first to be put into the timetable, timetabling is going to become more complex and may obstruct effective teaching and learning.

Most of our secondary schools have introduced a thematic approach, combining some or all of the national curriculum subjects, for Year 7. They use a team of teachers representing a range of subjects who may sometimes be required to teach ‘out of subject’. In this way, a new department has been developed within the school, with its own needs for meeting times and continuing professional development. Some of our schools now look for a range of different skills and experience when recruiting staff to work with Opening Minds classes.

The effectiveness of KS3 as a whole is the subject of much discussion throughout education and this has been raised several times as a topic at Curriculum Network seminars. As a result of the impact of the competences, several schools are reviewing the whole of Key Stage 3, for example shortening it to two years, perhaps using Year 7 as an induction year, or beginning Key Stage 4 in Year 9. The culture and ethos of the school may change through the use of the competence framework. Teachers at our seminars often mention that they feel empowered and encouraged to take risks and try out new ideas and styles of teaching. Managing these changes in an already busy school will be a challenge for curriculum managers, but if it can be achieved the benefits are there to be grasped.

Links with national policy The political landscape has changed substantially since Opening Minds started in 1999. Curriculum innovation was not on the agenda. Now, things are quite different. The DfES Low Attainers Pilot encourages member schools to review and completely revise their KS3 curriculum. Several of these schools have shown a keen interest in the principles and practice of Opening Minds.

Charles Leadbetter’s recent publications for the DfES (Leadbetter, 2004 and 2005) look at how education and the curriculum can be personalised, reforming the system to ensure that the learner is at the heart of it. He calls for schools to collaborate, to draw on the resources – people and objects – within the local community. Before students can tackle the job of assembling a part of their own curriculum they will need the skills that enable them to take responsibility for their own learning and to become independent thinkers. Opening Minds has a track record in doing this. For example, primary school headteachers invited into one Opening Minds secondary school in the first term of Year 7 were astonished at how much their ex-pupils had progressed. One of the more pronounced impressions was that pupils were thinking for themselves instead of being spoonfed.

As students involved in Opening Minds have progressed through their schools, they have been observed by teachers who were not involved in Opening Minds. Many schools refer to comments from these Year 8 teachers who have noticed that Year 8 students who experienced the competences in Year 7 show more ‘learning readiness’ when compared with previous Year 8 students, and with the school’s current Year 9s. These are useful skills and mindset when preparing for personalised learning.

Curriculum options Each school involved has written its own competence-led curriculum. Some have rewritten the whole of their Year 7 curriculum, combining all of the national curriculum subjects into six competence-based projects. Others have combined their humanities and arts subjects into six projects, leaving the other subjects as discrete curriculum subjects on the timetable. A few spotlight the competences for a specific year group, for half a term across the whole curriculum. The competences are most effective in learning when they are used and practised regularly in schools. They are least likely to be effective if they are only bolted on to the curriculum occasionally. Schools cannot buy the ‘definitive guide to competence-based learning’ or the ‘definitive guide to Opening Minds’. However, there is a growing body of materials that can help schools and some of these are listed in the box right. For the competences to be most effective, each school has to build and shape the competence-led curriculum that is most appropriate for them and their students. This will probably take about six months but it will be worth it, as the ownership will be established within the school and within the Opening Minds team of teachers. Key advice for curriculum managers is given in the box above right.

Key criteria Although we are still learning about the competences and their effectiveness, we can now identify key criteria for schools to consider when they are planning their own competence-led curriculum:

  • competences become part of the learning and teaching vocabulary
  • the need to embed the competences within the curriculum
  • schools must take ownership.

It takes time for students and teachers to understand the competences and for each student to be able to reflect on what the competences mean for each of them as individuals. The competences have to become part of the learning and teaching vocabulary used in the school, part of the learning landscape – on classroom walls, in students’ planners, referred to frequently in class and in reports to parents. The RSA classroom materials (published in October 2005) include a competence-based card game and board game designed to help pupils become familiar with the competences and to develop common understanding. Future In what continues to be a fascinating project, there are still questions to be explored:

  • Will improvements in students’ behaviour, motivation and attainment be sustained?
  • What will be the long-term impact on teaching and learning?
  • How will the Opening Minds project affect the way schools operate?

Opening Minds has grown considerably over the last couple of years. We know that it is vital to maintain the principle that schools volunteer to join us but we are interested in finding out if and how we might scale up the initiative from the current numbers of about 50 to perhaps 500? Would you like to join us?

Lesley James, Head of Education, RSA

For more details, email: [email protected]

RSA manifesto The RSA is now in its 251st year. It uses these five manifesto challenges to structure and focus its programme of projects and initiatives:

  • encouraging enterprise
  • moving towards a zero waste society
  • fostering resilient communities
  • developing a capable population
  • advancing global citizenship.

Opening Minds benefits

For students

  • A curriculum that has been designed for them
  • Opportunities for involvement in lessons, in shaping the content and having a say in how they learn
  • Opportunities to develop better relationships both with other students and with their teachers

For staff

  • Ownership of the curriculum
  • Opportunities for CPD and professional learning
  • Extended contact time means that they get to know their students better

For the whole school

  • Improvements in learning
  • Improvements in students’ attitudes to learning and to school
  • Opportunities to review the structures of the school
  • Involvement in a leading edge project

For the community

  • Links between school, parents and community improve through use of local resources — places and people

RSA competences


Students will:

  • understand how to learn, taking account of their preferred learning styles, and understand the need to, and how to, manage their own learning throughout life
  • have learned, systematically, to think have explored and reached an understanding of their own creative talents, and how best to make use of them
  • have learned to enjoy and love learning for its own sake and as part of understanding themselves
  • have achieved high standards in literacy, numeracy, and spatial understanding
  • have achieved high standards of competence in handling information and communications technology and understand the underlying processes.

Citizenship Students will:

  • have developed an understanding of ethics and values, how personal behaviour should be informed by these, and how to contribute to society
  • understand how society, government and business work, and the importance of active citizenship
  • understand cultural and community diversity, in both national and global contexts, and why these should be respected and valued
  • understand the social implications of technology
  • have developed an understanding of how to manage aspects of their own lives, and the techniques they might use to do so — including managing their finances.

Relating to people Students will:

  • understand how to relate to other people in varying contexts in which they might find themselves, including those where they manage, or are managed by, others
  • understand how to get things done
  • understand how to operate in teams, and their own capacities for filling different team roles
  • understand how to develop other people, whether as peer or teacher
  • have developed a range of techniques for communicating by different means, and understand how and when to use them
  • have developed competence in managing personal and emotional relationships
  • understand, and be able to use, varying means of managing stress and conflict.

Managing situations Students will:

  • understand the importance of managing their own time, and have developed preferred techniques for doing so
  • understand what is meant by managing change, and have developed a range of techniques for use in varying situations
  • understand the importance both of celebrating success and managing disappointment, and ways of handling these
  • understand what is meant by being entrepreneurial and initiative-taking, and how to develop capacities for these
  • understand how to manage risk and uncertainty, the wide range of contexts in which these will be encountered, and techniques for managing them.

Managing information Students will:

  • have developed a range of techniques for accessing, evaluating and differentiating information and have learned how to analyse, synthesise and apply it
  • understand the importance of reflecting and applying critical judgement, and have learned how to do so.

Key points

  • Be clear about the purpose(s) of introducing the competences as the purpose will help to shape the final outcomes
  • Put together a small planning team, between six and 10 people, that includes at least one senior member of staff
  • Allow between six and nine months for planning time
  • If necessary, prioritise which competences are most appropriate and/or useful for your pupils
  • Allocate a reasonable budget
  • Make sure that all staff know what is happening — it is important that those who are not directly involved feel that they are being kept up to date
  • Take risks, don’t play safe


  • Bayliss, V. (1999) Opening Minds, education for the 21st century, RSA
  • Bayliss, V. et al (2003) Opening Minds, taking stock, RSA
  • James, L. ( 2002) , ‘Opening minds to new model for the curriculum’, Curriculum Management Update
  • Leadbetter, C. (2004) Learning about personalisation: how can we put the learner at the heart of the education system? DfES
  • Leadbetter, C. (2005)The shape of things to come: personalised learning through collaboration, DfES
  • RSA (2005) Opening Minds: giving young people a better chance, RSA

Other resources

  • Bosher, M., and Hazlewood, P (2005) Nurturing independent thinkers: working with an alternative curriculum, St John’s School and Community College, Network Educational Press, see:
  • Revell, P. (2005) How special are subjects?, report of a Creative Partnerships/RSA conference held on 6 April, see: