MAINTAINING the quality and quantity of the teaching profession, and containing the Pounds 11.5 billion teachers' pay bill within the Government's inflation target is the juggling act Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett will have to perform this year - under the watchful eye of the Treasury.
And as if that is not enough, he is being forced to take short-term measures to stem a ballooning crisis in teacher supply, while planning fundamental reforms to teachers' contracts. The inevitable result - to adopt a medical analogy - will be the quick application of sticking plaster, followed by major surgery.
First the sticking plaster. Last week Mr Blunkett published his evidence to the School Teachers' Review Body, setting out his views on what next year's pay settlement should take account of. As in previous years, it urges prudence.
It points to independent data showing average public sector pay settlements running at 3 per cent, compared with 4 per cent for private sector non-manual earnings. At the same time, it shows inflation running at 3.3 per cent, with the underlying rate (excluding mortgages) at 2.75 per cent.
The tone of the submission - acknowledging the seriousness of the shortage crisis while cautioning against big across-the-board rises, suggests a settlement for 1999-2000 at or slightly above the inflation rate, but significantly less than the "substantial" rise teachers' leaders are demanding. Significantly, however, it acknowledges the damaging effect on teachers' morale another phased award would have.
For the most part, Mr Blunkett urges the review body to avoid major changes to teachers' pay scales next year, with the exception of its priority areas for tackling the immediate shortage crisis. He has asked the review body to take immediate steps to improve the supply and recruitment of primary heads and teachers in shortage subjects, and in recruitment blackspots such as London. And he also wants urgent action to make the current pay structure more effective in helping failing schools to recruit, retain and reward good teachers. One outcome could be bonuses for heads and their staff who succeed in turning round schools.
But Mr Blunkett is also planning major surgery. This autumn's Green Paper promises to open the debate on the modernisation of the profession after 2000. The Treasury has agreed to fund pay reforms from the Pounds 1.2bn set aside in the Government's spending review for service development. Writing in The TES in July Mr Blunkett said he would want "something for something", with extra pay linked to performance and targets.
Most of the submissions to the review body for the next pay round acknowledge the importance of the Green Paper and have saved any recommendations on structure until that consultation.
Mr Blunkett, in his submission, said: "In terms of pay reform, the Green Paper will explore ways of creating a more flexible pay system to reward high-performing teachers in the 2000-2001 pay round."
The Government, he said, wanted to "work with teachers to build a profession which is forward-looking, ambitious, open to change and committed to continuous improvement".
He continued: "Modernisation will entail an updated professional structure, improved leadership, incentives for excellence, systematic professional development and practical support to free teachers to teach. The Government wants the many hard-working, dedicated, and highly professional teachers to see how reform can help them to do their job better, to be rewarded for it and to have their success celebrated."
Whether the Government succeeds it its ambitions will crucially depend on how individual teachers - and their representatives in the unions - respond to the detailed proposals once the Green Paper emerges. Much depends on ministers' plans to introduce performance-related pay, and in particular how that performance would be measured.
Last weekend's National Union of Teachers vote to reject any form of merit pay has made it clear that the Government has much persuading to do.
By concentrating on the immediate problems of recruitment and retention this year, the six teacher unions have added strength to their argument for a substantial increase by submitting an unprecedented joint demand. In a separate submission the National Union of Teachers has called for a 10 per cent rise, with an extra 2 per cent for newly-qualified teachers and recent entrants. The National Association of Head Teachers says it would require a 17 per cent increase to bring them into line with comparable management jobs.
In their joint submission the unions make the case for a substantial rise in April on two grounds: the impending teacher shortage and the relative decrease of teachers' pay compared to other graduates.
They say existing salaries for teachers are already 12 per cent below the average for new graduates in other occupations. The gap worsens over a short period. After three years, graduates outside teaching will have had a 40 per cent rise, compared to teachers' 18 per cent. After five years, the increase is 32 per cent for teachers, but 63 per cent for other graduates.
The National Employers' Organisation for School Teachers - while it supports calls for "golden hellos" in the form of trainee salaries or helping recruits to teaching pay off student loans - takes a different view on pay. It sees no justification for an above-inflation pay settlement.
It says while the Pounds 1,100 million increase in Education Standard Spending Assessment represents a major investment in education, local authorities have other demands on them, for example the reduction of class sizes for infants, increases in the provision for children with special needs and rising pupil numbers.
The employers acknowledge concerns over the combined effects of more teacher vacancies and a drop in recruitment to secondary teacher-training courses, but ask whether the slowdown of the economy will help teacher supply in the future. History shows that a recession is good news for teacher recruitment and retention.