Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, Lancashire, has a practice of running "thinktanks" for staff once or twice a year where they come together to share and discuss ideas. It was at one of these sessions that staff began discussing whether they should give pupils more time to work independently on their own projects.
Headteacher Andrew Raymer says: "It became apparent that, in order to change the learning for the student, we had to change the curriculum. It was this realisation that brought round a consensual agreement for the project.
"This is a school that has been interested in learning for a long time. Most schools aren't, they're interested in performance."
Around this time, the Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise committed to using "innovation" to tackle social problems, and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, an independent grant-awarding body focusing on education and social justice, launched the Learning Futures programme, which supports proposals to make secondary education more engaging and effective. Matthew Moss High sent off its idea and was invited to participate in the scheme.
Many schools encourage pupils to do individual projects. But the My World scheme at Matthew Moss High goes much further.
During Years 7 and 8, pupils spend eight out of the week's 30 periods doing project work. In Year 9, they continue with this kind of work, gaining half a GCSE through the Edexcel Project qualification. The school is currently trying to develop a similar curriculum for key stage 4, but has found this difficult because of the restrictive format of GCSE exams.
Project-based learning has a long history, especially in schools across the US. What makes My World different, according to Raymer, is that pupils are "co-constructors" of the curriculum, so that learners and teachers decide the direction of projects together.
The idea for a project starts with a teacher or in group work, but then each pupil makes it their own. Students are assessed in a variety of ways, including through vivas, journals and exhibitions.
Last year, a Year 7 pupil explored how music and colour could change people's moods. The genesis of the idea came from a lesson in which pupils were asked how people might entertain themselves on a desert island. Being a guitar player, the girl said "music" and her project grew from there.
The increased responsibility for the pupil extends beyond the project's subject. If the work requires resources that are not available at Matthew Moss High, it is up to the pupil to approach the school's business manager and order them in.
The school staff are now supportive of the scheme, but Mr Raymer admits that "we've all found it challenging at times, because this is changing what it means to be a teacher". He also accepts that the increased responsibility can be difficult for pupils to handle.
Raymer makes it clear that this scheme takes planning and commitment. "It involves a complete change in philosophy and, unless you're prepared to do all that goes with that, you have to ask yourself whether or not you really want to do it," he says.
Evidence that it works
The current Year 10 cohort were the first pupils to start on the scheme. According to Raymer, all the indicators point to this group being the school's highest achieving pupils at GCSE.
Approach: Allowing pupils to shape their learning by designing and managing their own projects
Leader: Headteacher Andrew Raymer
Supported by Learning Futures, a programme launched by the Innovation Unit and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The scheme is featured in the Innovation Unit's report 10 Schools for the 21st Century. www.innovationunit.org
Name: Matthew Moss High School
Location: Rochdale, Lancashire
Age range: 11-16
Intake: Co-educational. The percentage of pupils with special educational needs and the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals are above the national average
Ofsted overall rating: Good.