The shortage of teachers is undoubtedly the biggest crisis confronting schools at present. With even prestigious schools facing shortages this September, those schools which have fallen behind in the popularity stakes look set for a precipitous decline. Never mind the Government's plans for educational improvement, even full-time education may become a thing of the past for children in the least privileged neighbourhoods, with disastrous consequences for society.
So what can be done?
In the post-war era, parents who had suffered hunger and deprivation during the years of the great depression saw teacher training as a route by which their children could acquire a permanent salaried job, in a valued vocation: a ticket to the good life.
Many thousands of working-class young people, fortunate enough to have gained a grammar school place, were encouraged to abandon old but declining familial trades to join other classmates in becoming teachers. The number of training college applicants was swollen by students signing on for a passport to the professional middle class.
This robust recruitment into the teaching profession, from all classes, continued well into the 1970s. But persuading the children of that generation to become teachers is another matter. In a climate in which public services do not have the allure they had for graduates in pre-Thatcher days, these young people are rising quickly, through a plethora of jobs in business and industry, to salary levels their parents have never attained.
The answer to the problem of teacher recruitment today lies, not only in courting those with imaginative vision from among young people with ample job prospects, but also in looking, once again, for those who belong to an underclass where talent is buried beneath social and cultural restraints. This was brought home to me the other day by a group of London midwives: intelligent, resourceful, warm-hearted - and black - they had gained a toe-hold in the professions. Today, overwhelmingly, it is within urban ethnic minorities that untapped talent is to be found.
Parents in deprived inner-city areas are often desperately concerned about their children's prospects. Yet, in spite of comprehensive schools continuing to open up educational opportunities to all-comers, the teaching profession has become effectively closed since the 1980s to all except privileged entrants, the pressure to raise standards having led - rightly - to the minimum entry requirement of an (unfortunately increasingly expensive) university degree.
Were selected schools in inner-city areas to provide a pre-teaching general national vocational qualification, as the first rung on a ladder leading to a new mode of entry into the profession, this would not only present an attractive career path to many 16-year-olds, immediately post-GCSE, but would be seen to benefit the whole local community, feeding back students' skills into the lower part of the school, through their initial teaching observation and practice. Young people can provide excellent role models for disaffected students and can be immensely valuable as helpers in promoting classroom learning.
I envisage that successful completion of the pre-teaching course would qualify students to work as paid classroom assistants, while further study would be available at the same time towards an initial teaching certificate (allowing students to teach under certain closely-supervised conditions) and thereafter towards a BEd and fully-qualified teacher status.
Participating schools would benefit from having young people working in them who are variously qualified, in a wide range of supporting roles, and this step-by-step approach to training would both widen the social base of teacher recruits and also strengthen their professionalism through the wealth of experience post-16 entrants to the profession would garner during the whole course of their training.
Any underachievement in, for example, literacy, numeracy or information technology skills, could simply be made up as a natural part of the training, alongside other components of good professional practice.
If the Government wishes to resolve the teacher crisis, I propose that it should fund the setting up of a pre-teaching GNVQ in inner-urban schools, selecting those schools which already boast a sound ethos and high teaching standards and which can therefore provide the best mentoring environment for students. A structured path for subsequent further study, generously grant-aided and locally based, would also be necessary.
In addition, well-targeted initial discussions with students, parents and community leaders will need to take place at the outset, as a first step towards creating the local commitment required to make the scheme a success. The consequent spin-off, in terms of the sense of ownership which local communities would feel for their "teacher-training" schools, in which their own young people were involved in delivering the curriculum, could be enormous, vastly increasing the motivation of pupils of all ages.
If the Government is to reap the benefits of this proposal before its present term expires, it would be well advised to advertise funding and support for the first pilot pre-teaching GNVQ without delay.
Monica Else is a social policy consultant and chair of governors of a large comprehensive school specialising in urban and community development.