Hackles have been raised by a fast-track recruitment scheme, recently proposed by MPs to attract bright graduates into teaching. Yet this type of strategy has long been used in the public services and industry and selection methods and promotion patterns are constantly refined.
Competition for high-flying young graduates is growing. The civil service's fast-track recruitment programme has seen applications decline from 14,500 to under 12,000 over the past three years, although it is still oversubscribed. Last year 52 of those offered one of the 300 vacancies after going through the exhaustive selection procedure turned the job down.
Roly Cockman, of the Association of Graduate Employers, believes that the number of employers seeking to recruit high-flyers by highly selective entry schemes is also growing. "They are looking for people with good degrees, specifically in traditional single-subject disciplines. Those qualifications get them past the gate, and then employers use assessment centres to sort out their other attributes and fast-track promotion programmes."
The fast-stream recruitment scheme for the civil service runs eight competitions each year for the future "Sir Humphreys".
Of the 20,000 people who join the civil service each year, on average only about 150 come in by the fast-track route. Applications are accepted from graduates with at least a 2.2. These are the graduates the MPs would like to entice into teaching. But competition is fierce.
For many years, NatWest Bank conducted its graduate recruitment through the "milk-round" process on university campuses. They took on 250 people, divided into three "streams" according to their potential, for a two-year on-the-job training scheme. But the bank has changed its strategy because increasing numbers of recruits were leaving after training.
It now selects a maximum of 50 graduates with at least a 2.1, and puts them on an intensive management induction programme and then gives them junior management positions. The schemes run by the civil service and the big banks are similar; they offer graduates transferable skills in administration or financial management with the option of changing employers at some point. However, in teaching a pre-requisite for fast-track recruits would obviously be a commitment to the profession.
The police service has run an Accelerated Promotion Scheme for Graduates since concluding that it needed more high-flyers. The scheme is heavily oversubscribed.
It is no good applying for the APSG if you are not completely committed to being a police officer. But, significantly for anyone planning a similar scheme for teachers, recruitment is carried out by one of the 53 British police forces and recruits spend their first two years on the beat as constables.
It is difficult to envisage a scheme for teachers that did not demand some time at the "chalk-face" before promotion, although the MPs' select committee, in a report published in the autumn, suggested that outstanding candidates should go into a fast-track "entry grade" after a competitive selection process.
The National Union of Teachers says that accelerated recruitment and promotion schemes would be difficult to adapt to a profession with 25,000 boards of governors making appointments.
Peter Smith of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers says that the Government has already promoted something like a fast-track to ambitious young recruits who would progress from being an Advanced Skills Teacher to the new qualification for headship. But he foresees great problems in organising a recognised fast-track within a system in which the local authorities have lost their human-resources management powers.
There is also some scepticism about the speed at which it is sensible to promote teachers. "It is not just a question of Buggins' turn in teaching," says Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT. "Teachers are interacting with children and young people and one of the characteristics of a good head is that he or she can handle every situation that arises. What is needed is the sort of wisdom which comes with experience."
Selection schemes for fast-track recruits in other professions are rigorous. More than half of the applicants for the police scheme are rejected or withdraw before interview. Half the rest are called for interview and then rejected, although some are offered places as standard recruits. In recent years, only 23 per cent of those who have reached the final stage of the selection process, the extended interview selection board, have been accepted. The final stage of the police selection procedure consists of three days of interviews, individual aptitude tests and group work.
The civil service uses written tests, a two-day assessment and an interview board. NatWest invites interested graduates to an interview with a local manager, conducts a 20-30 minute telephone interview, followed by half a day at a selection centre for discussions and assessment exercises.
The schemes are unashamedly elitist. They pick out the candidates who are likely to be high-flyers and offer them special training and promotion opportunities. The hope is that they will not only fulfil their potential but remain with their employer for most of their career. The rewards are considerable for many high-flyers. A police fast-track graduate would normally achieve rapid promotion to sergeant and then inspector by 30, with a salary of around pound;30,000 a year, and further promotion to follow.
In the civil service, a fast-track entrant would expect to reach grade 5 by the age of 30, at a similar salary. In banking, NatWest starts its high-flying recruits at pound;16,000 outside London, and pound;20,000 in the capital. Its new fast-stream recruits are still in their early 20s but pound;30,000 would be a rather modest salary to have reached eight or nine years after starting.
In teaching, a 30-year-old graduate who had taken on no additional responsibilities would have reached a salary of pound;21,591 and would remain there unless promoted. They would need to become a primary school head or a secondary head of department by 30 to break the pound;30,000 barrier.
As Peter Smith of ATL puts it: "No one comes into teaching to become seriously rich. But prospects do not compare well with other professions. We need better salaries all round."
Tony Dawson is a 37-year-old Oxford graduate (a second in classics and philosophy, politics and economics), a police superintendent and staff officer to the director of personnel at Scotland Yard. He joined the fast-track training scheme after first joining the Metropolitan Police as a constable in the traditional way in 1984.
"I think at first I didn't see myself as a career police officer," he says. "I joined because I'd had a privileged upbringing and I wanted to put something back into society." He pounded the beat in Stoke Newington and Finsbury Park in north London, part of the time in a unit that dealt with drugs and prostitution. Promoted to sergeant, he was recommended to the fast-track scheme and from then on, he says, he was hooked.
Rapid promotion, with spells of training at the police college at Bramshill, has seen him working as an operational inspector in Paddington, a member of the team drafting the Met's strategic plan, The London Beat, and working in personnel. He became a superintendent in 1996 at the age of 36 and is studying part-time for an MA in leadership at Exeter University.
"The fast track isn't dramatically faster than the normal route," he says. "You might spend two years as a sergeant instead of four. You need to understand what you are doing as a basic-level professional before you can make the transition to first-line management."
SIR DICKIE BREEZED IN... John Fuller is a civil servant in the Cabinet Office working on the evaluation of independent agencies as a way of running public services. He was selected for the civil service fast stream when he was 25 with a PhD in modern history from Cambridge and a year's experience as an audit trainee.
"I suppose I was attracted by the idea of going into public service without making financial sacrifices," he admits. "The selection procedure is exhaustive, but it pays off because the wastage rate is so low.
"Increasingly, fast-track recruits are coming in after doing other things," he says. "Only half come straight from university and the average age is 25.5 years. I found that having a different job focused my mind. It all seems a bit abstract in an academic context."
The fast-stream recruits generally spend between three and five years on specific placements before an appointment to a permanent job. John Fuller's first job was in personnel looking at ways of keeping accountants in government service through the use of retention allowances.
He has also been an assistant parliamentary secretary in the private office of the Minister for the Arts where the highlight was Richard Attenborough breezing in to discuss film policy, and ended with spells at Overseas Development and in the Cabinet Secretariat.
The crucial promotion came after four years when he became one of the directors of the Civil Service College with day-to-day experience of a pound;17 million budget. Three years ago he returned to his "home" department.
UPWARDLY MOBILE CAREER TO BANK ON
Helen Eastwood is 23 and is an assistant manager at the Southport branch of NatWest.
She was recruited on to the bank's fast-track scheme during her final year at university in Leeds, where she came away with a 2.1 in economics.
What attracted her to her career, she says, was the fact that the training scheme was structured so that recruits moved into a real job very quickly.
NatWest's new programme gives recruits a two-month intensive course at its residential training centre in Oxfordshire, followed by four months of placements in different parts of the organisation.
"This gives you the chance to learn how you fit into a large organisation and also some idea of where you would ultimately like to work," she says.
After six months, recruits apply for vacancies and are appointed to specific jobs. Time is allowed for further study - Helen has started to study for an MBA with the Open University - and every fast-track recruit is appointed to a mentor to whom they can turn for help and advice.
Helen is ambitious, although she realises she will have to be prepared to move to make her career in a large organisation.
"I would like to move into senior management at regional or national level," she says.