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Refocusing schools as ‘learning organisations’: A new direction for school improvement?

Jonathan Doherty

How are successful schools measured? By being judged ‘1’ by Ofsted? By excellent SATs or A-level results in a single year? By being popular with parents and having buoyant admissions? No. It is learning that holds the key to success for any organisation, institution or business, and schools are no exception. It is their prime asset and their most important commodity. Successful organisations share the same common ingredients: being dynamic in responding to the pressures of change, and demonstrating their ability to learn quickly. They are integral to a learning society.

A learning society promotes learning for life. It aims to develop engaged learners who are prepared to take on challenges and move forward. It sees learning as an inclusive activity in which no-one is excluded. It supports systems of continuous innovation and feedback to develop knowledge of what works and in which circumstances (Cisco, 2010).

‘It is now, perhaps more than ever, that knowledge from and about successful “learning organisations” is being transferred to schools.’

A learning organisation, as defined by Pedler et al, is ‘an organisation that facilitates the learning of all its members and consciously transforms itself and its context’ (1991: 3). Made popular through Senge’s work in the 1990s, it is now, perhaps more than ever, that knowledge from and about successful learning organisations is being transferred to schools (see Senge 1990). In these times of rapid and complex changes in education, it has much to recommend it as a means of school improvement.

The research that I am carrying out into learning organisations with Exceed Academies Trust, a major multi-academy trust (MAT) in Bradford, has two strands. The first is looking at how schools within this MAT see themselves as learning schools, and the second is on the leadership of learning schools. Early data shows that Exceed’s schools embrace change and innovation: they are truly learning schools. Pedagogies and practices equip their learners with the skills for success in 21st-century life. As learning schools, they place learning at their centre. They focus on how learning takes place, and not on what is to be learned. Learners – crucially, including adult learners – are an integral part of the learning process. They experiment and learn from mistakes. There is an ethos of enquiry, with collaboration among staff and high levels of knowledge sharing. Exceed as an organisation is, as a whole, a dynamic and reflexive one. Interviews with the CEO and headteachers across the MAT illustrate a drive from senior leadership that is reflected in actions and outcomes in all the schools. They talk passionately about ‘moral purpose’, the uniqueness of their school context within the MAT structure, but also about how they are part of a larger organisation and how they benefit from this. These schools improve – and importantly, their improvement is sustainable.

Is it too radical? Is this achievable by all schools? It may require a changed mindset – a change in practice, even – away from performance-measuring to learning. Improving schools is a journey, and every school is at a different stage on that journey. Changing schools to become learning schools may offer one forward step on the road.

Cisco (2010) The Learning Society, San Jose, CA

Pedler M, Burgoyne J and Boydell T (1991) The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill

Senge P (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, New York: Doubleday Currency