We could be at the beginning of a revolution in teacher training. One of Estelle Morris's first actions when she became Education Secretary last month was to ask whether teaching should continue to be seen as a lifetime vocation. She said that we should be doing more to encourage other professionals to switch into teaching and should accept that teaching is no longer a job for life. Teachers would use the classroom as a stepping stone to other careers, she said.
Given the current teacher recruitment crisis it is easy to understand the reaction of Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, who described the latter idea as "strange". But Ms Morris's comments reflect the serious questions that are now being asked in government about whether teaching can remain a lifelong career and attract the quantity of high-quality staff needed in schools. If teaching does become merely one part of a portfolio career then it will inevitably have a big impact on teacher training.
The vast majority of current trainees are either undergraduates pursuing a four-year Bachelor of Education degree - mostly primary and physical education - or graduates on a one-year post-graduate certificate in education course - mostly secondary.
Out of a total of 29,300 current trainees all but 2,600 follow one of these two college-based routes. Ministers have already taken tentative steps towards reform. They have tended to focus recruitment incentives towards those on PGCE courses, which has led to the virtual extinction of four-year secondary teacher-training courses. Part of the reason for this is that the PGCE route is more popular among trainees in shortage subjects but there is also a belief that a one-year teaching "conversion course" is the best way to attract the best graduates.
More may need to be done, however, if teaching is to become attractive to people already embarked on a different career. Sir Kevin Satchwell, head of Thomas Telford school, in Shropshire, has called for schools to be allowed to hire and train their own teachers.
And as Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University puts it: "People coming into teaching later in life don't necessarily want to go back to college."
The last Conservative government attempted to make postgraduate courses more accessible by splitting them into modules and basing courses in schools. This flexible route, known as School-Centred Initial Teacher Training, now accounts for a little more than 1,000 of the 19,000 PGCE students.
Labour has built on this by introducing a new graduate teacher programme to allow mature entrants to the profession to gain qualified teacher status while working in schools. Take-up was initially slow. In 19989, its first full year of operation, the scheme had just 508 places. But the scheme has expanded and 1,500 people have taken part so far this year. Part of the attraction is undoubtedly the offer of a pound;12,000 salary. While the Government's pound;6,000 salary for PGCE students may be attractive to new graduates, for those already in work it can be an unacceptable wage cut.
In part, the increased popularity of the graduate teacher programme is explained by the recruitment crisis. At other times, heads are reluctant to take on the burden of training people on the job. "What has always happened in the past is that when we hit recruitment difficulties heads run around desperate to find people and that's when you get an increase in the numbers on schemes like the GTP," said Professor John Howson, a recruitment expert and former adviser to the Teacher Training Agency.
But he believes that this time employment-based training may be here to stay. "We are coming to the end of a golden generation of teachers who committed whole careers to teaching. If people are drifting in and out of teaching and drifting in at a late stage then we have got to have the routes to get them in," he said.
"If there is going to be a higher turnover then we need to train more people. Even a 10 or 15 per cent increase in training will mean you need more training in schools and probably more training institutions as well."
This is not a completely new situation. In the past, women who left teaching to get married or to have children typically never returned to the classroom. As a result, as recently as the early 1970s there were more than twice as many teachers in training as there are today.
However, many of those entering the profession up until the 1970s were, in effect, trained on-the-job. Although the route was gradually closed, it was still possible to become a secondary-school teacher without formal training as long as you had a good honours degree.
"I came into teaching that way and if you tap a few senior people in education I think you'll find they did as well," said Professor Howson.
An employment-based route has some obvious advantages. "It is desirable," said Professor Smithers. "Teacher training has been separate from teaching itself. If you look at large companies they all have their training associated with them. If you train for Marks amp; Spencer you train in their stores alongside the people you will work with. If you are not going to like the job you find out about it quickly. In teaching, training is a two-stage process and people get lost between the two or spend a lot of time training only to find it's not for them."
But there would also be a down-side. "Trainees would rapidly become a high proportion of the staff in schools. Parents would soon start complaining if their child was taught mostly by trainees."
And while secondary schools such as Thomas Telford may be able to train teachers what about small primaries? They could band together into local consortia to train teachers. But they have less incentive to do so as individual schools employ fewer newly qualified teachers.
Professor Howson believes that a complete review of teacher training is needed. But Professor Smithers is more cautious. "One shouldn't be too optimistic that we can reform the system easily. I think we'll see a process of evolution. We need to tap the supply of new graduates at source and universities and colleges are well-placed to do that. But over a period of time I would expect the growth of school-based training to continue."
If the Government does decide that radical reform in the shape of more school-based training is needed, Professor Howson suggests they could be in for something of a shock.
He believes the true cost of training is masked. In schools the training could cost considerably more. University teaching groups have expanded, so training is being delivered on the cheap.
"I suspect it is being done on the cheap especially compared to the police or the armed forces," he added.
Estelle Morris be warned: reform may come at a price.
POSTGRADUATE CERTIFICATE IN EDUCATION
PGCE courses are the most common way to train to become a teacher. Graduates complete a year's training course based at a college or university before looking for a job in a school. Trainees in shortage subjects receive a "golden hello" of pound;4,000 in addition to a pound;6,000 training salary on offer to all.
BACHELOR OF EDUCATION
The traditional three or four-year education degree is in decline but remains a popular gateway for primary and PE teachers. Student support is offered in the same way as for other degree courses. People on these courses are not eligible for training salaries.
GRADUATE TEACHER PROGRAMME
The largest on-the-job training route. It offers schools a grant to train graduates over the age of 24. Trainees can expect a salary of around pound;12,000. GTP trainees follow a postgraduate programme of up to a year. Funding will be available for up to 2,250 trainees in the next school year.
REGISTERED TEACHER PROGRAMME
Similar to the GTP but aimed at people without degrees who have completed at least two years of higher education. It takes two years and trainees complete their degree while they train. This year, only 86 people got on to the course.
SCHOOL-CENTRED INITIAL-TEACHER TRAINING
Based in a school, it is aimed at those with teaching experience who are not qualified to teach in a state school. A popular route for overseas or independent-sector teachers. Training is split into modules in an effort to attract those with jobs or care responsibilities.