THE Millennium Dome echoed to the celebration of teacher excellence last Sunday. One by one, inspirational teachers collected their "Plato" and a cheque for pound;20,000 from an array of stars from Twiggy to Nigel Havers. But as Catherine Samuel received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Richard Wilson - the star of One Foot in the Grave - I felt that David Puttnam had perhaps chosen his cast with a message in mind. Like Victor Meldrew, lifetime teachers are becoming a dying breed.
The average time a teacher now spends in the profession is less than 15 years. One in two teachers wants out within 10 years and for the first time since 1990-91 more teachers left the profession than retired. That's more than 3,000 in the past two years.
To compound the problem, even fewer want to join. Apart from 1992-94, successive governments have missed recruitment targets by an average of 10 per cent every year since 1983. And an estimated 14,000 more teachers are required by 2004.
If, as the adverts say, "everyone remembers a good teacher" and teachers really do make such a difference to the lives of young people why do so few people want to teach?
Why, within hours of that magnificent dome celebration, is the Government spending pound;7 million on advertising campaigns ("Those who can, teach") - the subtlety of which will pass over the heads of most would-be recruits?
The simple fact is that we are facing the most severe teacher shortage crisis since the late 1980s.
And, with "education, education education" its battle cry, the Government can hardly face the electorate with schools working four-day weeks because they have no teachers! So what is the answer?
Let me dispel as a starting point the myth that salary does not matter. It does. The vague promise of pound;2,000 in seven or nine years' time is not enough. There must be a competitive starting salary and attractive pay progression. If we are to recruit the 20,000 graduates we need we must be prepared to compete in the open market.
It is not good enough to say we cannot afford to compete with Price WaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, or IBM for the brightest and best. The reality is we cannot afford not to.
Salary alone is not the answer. Fundamental to addressing the current crisis is to alter young people's perception of teaching. When I left school my teachers encouraged me to go into teaching; today the opposite is the case. So many young people see their teachersburdened with bureaucracy. They see teachers being told what to teach, when to teach and, increasingly, how to teach. The lack of professional freedom is all too obvious and that is not attractive to lively, creative young people.
That perception must be changed. The Government must tackle the climate in our schools. It must trust teachers and in return that trust will be transmitted to their students.
The Liberal Democrats would go further. We want every undergraduate to have an accredited teaching unit as part of their degree course - encouraging undergraduates to work in "advocacy" schools to acquire skills and share knowledge. These schools would offer students support and advice from mentors, part of whose job would be to advocate teaching as a profession. Teaching skills are useful in any walk of life and what better place for attracting graduates into teaching?
We are, of course, delighted that the Government has adopted our proposals for training salaries for PGCE students. Ministers claim that their introduction in March has averted "a potential drop in graduate applications of up to 20 per cent". That being so, imagine how many more applications would have been saved if the policy had been adopted two years ago, or if, as the Liberal Democrats propose, the training salary was pound;10,000?
Of course, it would be a mistake to concentrate too much on recruiting students straight from university rather than from other professions or occupations.
The fast-track process currently offered by the Department for Education and Employment is worth pursuing but it must be more adventurous. Its introduction has been bungled badly, to date, no targets have been set and two regions, Yorkshire and the Humber and East Midlands, do not even have a designated provider.
But the real challenge is "growing" teachers from their own communities. If we are to tackle the shortages in parts of London and, in particular, the lack of teachers from ethnic minorities we must encourage bottom-up growth.
The Liberal Democrats are keen to see "associate teachers" in all primary schools and, later, secondaries. They would receive a salary as a classroom assistant and free tuition up to level 3 in a range of educational studies. If we can accredit this work as part of a teacher-training programme and then tie in the new foundation degree as an essential building block towards Qualified Teacher Status I believe we can address teacher shortages and build confidence in our communities at the same time.
Phil Willis is the Liberal Democrat education spokesman