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Curmudgeon

The Department for Education has an answer for everything and this month the answer is action planning. Never heard of "the ripple effect"? What you need is new improved action planning, specially formulated by a team of design consultants working for the DFE at the cutting edge of educational thinking.

Yes, the department is trailblazing once again, with a series of invitational conferences aimed at headteachers and governors. Called Action for Improvement, they tell you everything you ever wanted to know about action planning - and had worked out for yourself some months ago.

They are not, however, entirely lacking in interest. One of the endearing things about the DFE until recently was its conviction that the new technology had something to do with Tipp-Ex and spirit duplicators; it won't have escaped your attention that the OFSTED logo is written in chalk on a blackboard. With Action for Improvement they have gone high-tech. The production values would do justice to a dodgy travel agent trying to shift time share apartments.

At the back sits a technician in front of a control board with the capacity to handle a small rock concert. Burnished logos wink temptingly from the set. Lights dim, and a succession of full colour overhead transparencies pass effortlessly in front of your eyes. This is the twilight world of presentations. All that is missing is the musical accompaniment.

Dazed by design, I have a momentary fantasy of success criteria exploding on the screen in time to the 1812.

The crowning glory, however, is the information pack provided for conference delegates. Waiting in the queue for coffee, I try to work out why, underneath the neat lettering and the omnipresent logos, there is a kind of elegant swirl of blue daubs looking, for all the world, like a galaxy endlessly circling itself in space. Or could it be a whirlpool?

Either way, the message seems to be the same. Avoid getting sucked in. Whatever plans you have, they could all disappear without trace.

I was mystified. Even the DFE, I thought, might have been expected to spot that a black hole was not a good design concept for a conference on action planning.

It was only once the conference restarted that we discovered that this was intended to represent the "ripple effect". It is one of the hallmarks of good action planning, we learned, that the impact of any management decision should ripple through the organisation.

What the DFE don't seem to know about is its counterpart, the tsunami effect, whereby even the most inoffensive decision can become a major catastrophe by the time it has swept through the school. When the tsunami effect is working well, a minor difficulty that could have been sorted out in about 10 minutes has turned into a major systems failure and a vote of no confidence by the end of morning break.

For every problem, it would seem, the DFE has a design team poised to produce a solution. GCSE exam results down? Phone the ad agency. Teachers threatening to strike? Call in a graphic artist. It is a technique that could be applied in school.

Why not close down the art department and redeploy the staff into work that, in the long run, will benefit the school far more than all that boring old teaching.

There are a few rules, however. The slogan, for example, mustn't use more than three words, at least one of which must be "challenge", "action", "change", "initiative" or "target".

Onomatopoeia or rhyme helps and the whole package should be sufficiently ambiguous to allow a change of direction if the need arises. Something like "The improvement initiative" catches exactly the right note.

The really ambitious could go for two of the compulsory words in the same slogan. "Action for Change", for example, scores double points, whereas "A Load of Old Action for Change", for example, scores double points, whereas "A load of Old Cobblers Designed to Impress OFSTED (ALOCDIO)" doesn't work quite so well.

It is a wonderful thing, style. So much more straightforward than content.

You should try it yourself. It's as easy as falling off a logo.

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