6th February 2004 at 00:00
Changing Towards Excellence: a toolkit for transformational leaders of schools. By John R Rowling. Trentham Books. pound;16.99

Do you know what counts as excellence in a school? John Rowling quotes Michael Barber ("There is insufficient belief in excellence"), then suggests this isn't quite right; the real problem, he argues, is that heads don't know what to aim at.

"Working with headteachers has convinced me that there is insufficient understanding of what excellence might look like, both of individual students and a whole school. It is difficult to define what 'excellent'

would be, both in personal practice and in institutional life, because the present performance is often thought to be excellent."

It's an understandable and surely common failing. The head looks at the achievements of pupils and believes they can do a couple of notches better.

But maybe the aspiration should be to a different order of success altogether - to real excellence rather than steady improvement.

It's the same with children's choirs - a world I know. You think yours is fine and getting better; everyone says so. Then you go to the National Festival of Music for Youth and you discover what real excellence is, and it's achieved by children just like yours. As with music, so, presumably, with other areas of achievement.

The leader's task, John Rowling writes, is to search for excellence by examining and analysing the achievements of others, by taking time to think beyond present experience and to "ask those with whom one works what might be done better". How many leaders miss out that last one, forgetting that there are people - at all levels, parents and pupils included - who may well know better than you what could be done better, and how?

John Rowling is that rarity, an effective leader who can write about leadership in a way that engages and inspires. Part of the secret is the way he continually refers to the work and writings of others. He deploys an eclectic mix of references, from the expected (Michael Fullan) through the less obvious (General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf) to the surprising (Simon Cowell and Pete Waterman); to be fair, most are drawn from the ranks of successful leadership across the world.

The overarching theme is change, a state to which none of us is immune. The successful leader is the one who pilots the team through the changes that lead to excellence. In the heart of the book is a series of chapters that show the route: "Feel the need"; "Form the team"; "Show the way"; "Spread the word"; "Have the plan"; "Making it happen".

Always, he comes back to successful schools, in a series of "school snapshots" - mini case studies of places where the transformation has happened.

Rooted in the credibility of its author's achievements as a headteacher, Rowling's book is one to lift the spirits and the sights of any leader who's trying to change things.

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