What could make a primary school spend virtually all its professional development budget on one course for all its teaching and non-teaching staff? Or could cause a local authority's education director to say, "It helped free up my thinking about the work I do and, importantly, the life I lead"?
The answer is the Investment in Excellence programme of the Pacific Institute. And before you say, "Oh no! Not another life-enhancing management seminar programme from the States!", then consider just how many hard-headed professionals have been convinced enough by it to make big budget and time commitments.
IIE is already part of life in dozens of household-name UK businesses, from Hewlett Packard, British Aerospace and The Rover Group to Mars Confectionery, Northern Foods and Whitbread. Now, about a dozen local education authorities are running it, and as many again have it under consideration. Kent, for example, has taken on IIE at all levels from director of education services onwards.
Humberside was similarly committed before the authority disappeared (though individual schools are still going forward with the programme). Newcastle and Shropshire are among those which have just started. Across the country, over the past few years, several thousand education office staff, teachers and support staff have taken the programme.
Angela Ogilvie, for example, a modern languages teacher at William Gee School in Hull, where almost all the teaching and support staff have been on the programme, says IIE has affected everything she does - "and not just in the classroom. It's made me more able to change things and to adapt to any situation".
One of the key principles is having a clear vision of personal goals, and a realisation that there are various ways of reaching them. As Angela Ogilvie puts it: "I used to think that I had to go through A then B then C in order to reach D - that would be my plan. IIE made me realise that there may be other ways of reaching D, and that this was quite OK."
Without exception, IIE graduates say they are more confident as a result. Jean Oliver, who was a classroom assistant at William Gee, is now a teachers' aide who also runs the library and has some responsibility for careers work. "I realised there were things I could offer to this school. I knew absolutely nothing about library work, for example, but every time the head asked me to take something on, I just felt that I could do it."
By now you will be beginning to wonder just what is going on here. And any doubts you may have will not be dispelled by the programme delivery, which is largely on video by Lou Tice of Seattle, a former American high school teacher who started the Pacific Institute in 1971.
The institute's response - apart from pointing out that sceptics are quickly won over - is to explain that the video format was arrived at because as the Pacific Institute expanded, Lou Tice became concerned that other presenters were not so effective. Video was his way of making sure that clients had the course directly from its creator. In any case, they point out, although video is a key element, each small group of clients also works with a trained "facilitator".
Further reassurance comes when the institute's people point out that IIE consists not of coloured smoke from a magic bottle, but of reputable mainstream psychological ideas. Neil Straker, the former HMI who helps to run the education side of the institute's work, says that IIE is "applied self-image psychology. It doesn't teach people what to think, it teaches them how to think".
Lou Tice's gift, his programme claims, "is to communicate psychological concepts intelligibly, entertainingly and inspiringly". Humberside's own description of IIE says it "pulls together psychology we already know into a tidy understandable package. It is the same psychology which creates records of achievement and individual action planning".
In effect, IIE is a means of helping people to gain confidence in their own abilities, and to rid themselves of preconceptions and inhibitions put there by the perceived reactions of others. In Lou Tice's words, "It enables you to get out of your own way, personally and professionally".
Investment In Excellence is delivered to groups of about a dozen people at a time in a five-day programme divided into two parts with a four-week interval during which participants work through distance-learning materials.
Ideally - though it is obviously not always possible - a school team will do the programme together, which is how teaching and support staff of The Grange Infants School in Grimsby experienced it two years ago.
"It was the most influential single piece of in-service that any of us had ever experienced," says head Val Jenkins. Deputy head Richard Oulton describes how the staff had been motivated to introduce a series of curriculum changes which would once have daunted them. "But we took it on and not one person missed deadlines - which were very tightly drawn. And if in discussion anyone's contribution was criticised, there was no flinching."
People involved in IIE know well, however, that "making people feel good about themselves" can be the sort of woolly concept that invites criticism, and they are at pains to point out that the programme goes further than that. According to Steve Cook, head of William Gee, "It's not just about raising self-esteem; it's about giving you the tools to manage any amount of change."
Neil Straker agrees: "It's more about developing efficacy - helping people to believe that they can cause things to happen". He emphasises that although IIE makes for good personal development, its true value is realised when it is taken on at the level of the whole school or, preferably, the whole local authority.
In Kent, 150 education service managers and teams from every secondary school have been through the IIE programme, with primaries still to come. Les Craggs, manager of curriculum services in Kent, talks of achieving "a critical mass of people - a sense of momentum". What IIE crucially does, he feels, is to shift some of the focus of in-service training towards the development of people. "We have actually become good at developing skills and abilities and knowledge. What I don't think we have done is simultaneously address the personal resources which we must have if we are to cope with change."
This thinking chimes with that of the Pacific Institute's Den Winterburn who, with Neil Straker, runs IIE in education. "I felt that there was a need in education for some of the things that business took for granted - personal development, how to influence people, how to manage people, how to develop yourself."
A story I heard at William Gee neatly illustrates what can happen when a teacher is given the confidence to tackle new challenges. Gill Clayton was appointed head of English not long after taking the IIE programme. Taking over an established department in a boys' school, she faced what could have been a daunting task. "In fact, before IIE, I'm not sure I would have had the confidence to do it. But I use the skills I learned on the programme in running the department."
Steve Cook says that "soon after she was appointed, she came to say she had found out which were the best English departments in the area, and had arranged to visit them to learn how they worked. All she wanted from me was cover so that she could do it. That's the sort of development I'm looking for. If I have to go round telling people they ought to go on courses, it makes my life difficult, doesn't it?" The Pacific Institute, 20-24 Uxbridge Street, London W8 7TA. Tel: 0171 727 9837. Fax: 0171 792 0468