HEADTEACHERS and recruitment experts are worried that the proposed introduction of top-up university fees could make teaching less attractive to newly-qualified graduates.
Debts of pound;21,000 may tempt many potential teachers into better-paid jobs. Independent schools are likely to be especially hard hit because they tend to recruit graduates from the universities that are expected to charge the highest fees.
The Government is expected to reduce the impact of fees by cancelling some of the new teachers' debts or raising their salaries to enable them to pay off their loans. But even if help is offered, the new financial arrangements for students promise to transform the employment landscape in schools, according to Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University.
"This will make the financial-reward structure for teachers even more important," he said.
"Graduates will look at how much debt they are going to be carrying in terms of both their education and their mortgages and whether there will be a better return from working in the personnel department of Marks and Spencer."
The White Paper proposes to scrap the existing flat-rate tuition fee of pound;1,100 and allow universities to charge up to pound;3,000 from 2006, provided they introduce admissions procedures designed to widen access to students from working-class backgrounds. Students will have to begin making repayments through tax once they are earning pound;15,000 a year.
A recent study by Professor Smithers and Louise Tracey for the Sutton Trust education charity found that independent school teachers are seven times more likely to be Oxbridge graduates than those in state schools. Private schools are also three times more likely to recruit graduates from one of the other top 13 universities.
With graduates of these universities in demand from high-paying employers in the City and elsewhere, Dr Philip Evans, headteacher of Bedford School and co-chair of the Independent Schools Council's university sub-committee, said top-up fees could well have a negative impact on teacher supply. "It will be particularly acute in subjects where there are already anxieties, such as mathematics, physics and economics," he added.
Although most leading independent schools already pay teachers more than they would earn in the state sector, John Howson of Education Data Surveys, believes they will almost certainly have to raise salaries once higher fees are introduced. Heads will then have to put their own fees up - and risk pricing some parents out of the independent school market.
Professor Howson also points out that by the time the first graduates affected by top-up fees enter the jobs market in 2009, teacher retirements will be at their peak. "So there will potentially be even greater demand, particularly in secondary schools, for new teachers, at a time when we may have to pay more for them," he said. "We've clearly got to have a pretty coherent response to all this."
The Department for Education and Skills says it is likely to build on existing teacher recruitment and retention initiatives.
These include a scheme introduced as a three-year pilot in September 2002, which writes off student maintenance loans for newly-qualified teachers in shortage subjects.
A department spokeswoman said: "Any initiatives will be part of planned human resource strategies, and we want to think carefully and hard about them - we have until 2006 to do so, after all."