Commonwealth education ministers have agreed to establish a code of practice on the recruitment of teachers by rich countries from September next year.
The decision, taken at the Conference of Commonwealth Ministers in Edinburgh last week, followed a heated debate in which South Africa's education minister, Kader Asmal, said the scale of poaching by rich countries such as Britain amounted to a "blood-letting" of qualified staff.
He said Britain could not claim the Government was not involved in recruiting because it was offering foreign teachers tax exemption for two years as an incentive to come to the UK.
"I was told the UK (government) was not actively recruiting. But they have got directly involved in this," he said.
Mario Michel, education minister and deputy prime minister of St Lucia, highlighted the plight of small countries which are disproportionately affected by poaching by British and American recruitment agencies. He said rich countries should compensate developing nations for contracting large numbers of their teachers.
Maxine Henry Wilson, education minister for Jamaica, said her country had increased teachers' pay by 25 per cent last year, but could not compete with the lure of UK salaries five times what Jamaica can afford. Up to 400 teachers had left for the UK in the past two years and 600 for the United States.
Ms Henry Wilson drew rousing applause from ministers from developing countries when she said: "If teachers have to leave, you have to help us train (more) teachers - there is a moral obligation - so we can become an offshore training facility for developed countries."
The meeting of ministers agreed to set up a working group of senior officials, chaired by the Commonwealth deputy secretary general, to focus on recruitment and report back by May 2004. An ad hoc group of ministers will then decide what action should be taken by September next year.
Numerous ministers highlighted the paradox of industrialised nations pledging support for the worldwide drive to ensure every child is given a good quality primary education - one of the main themes of the Edinburgh meeting - while at the same time undermining the teacher base required to maintain that quality.
Other key decisions included a commitment to ensure support for the fast track initiative, a global mechanism for ensuring rich countries make money available to plug finance gaps in poor countries' plans to get every child into school.
Education for all 22