New super-teachers are to be plucked from the ranks of the profession as shining examples of how the job should be done. Acting as beacons of excellence, the specially selected star performers will throw light on the best classroom practice, advising and demonstrating the most effective teaching methods.
The aim is to solve the age-old problem that the only way at present for good teachers to advance their career is by getting out of the classroom and into administration and management. Advanced Skills Teachers, as they will be known, were originally seen as a way of keeping the best teachers in the classroom doing what they are good at. Now, however, the Government expects them to spend two or three days a week out of their classrooms helping with teacher training or in other schools. And since they would be selected and paid by local authorities, it is hard to see how they will fit into the staffing of locally-managed schools at all.
Education Secretary David Blunkett has asked the school teachers' pay review body to come up with proposals for the new grade early next year so that trials can start the following September. The full scheme is set to go ahead in September 1999. As well as providing opportunities to excel in the classroom, the AST - according to Mr Blunkett - will help trainee and newly-qualified teachers. They may be employed by a local authority or one of the new education action zones also being proposed in the White Paper.
Some may work for a cluster of schools. Colleges and universities would be encouraged to make them associate fellows or professors taking part in their teacher training programmes.
These latest proposals have been received coolly by headteachers trying to run their schools effectively. Jeff Holman, assistant education secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "We want to see senior teachers given time in the school to work with colleagues. But these proposals are not going to help the head manage a school. One of the strengths of a good school is knowing it has capable and experienced teachers. Parents know who the good teachers are, and they are not going to be impressed to see them going off somewhere else for half the week."
The NAHT also makes the point that if the new grade attracts extra money, the differentials between heads and deputies and their staff would be squeezed, making an already serious shortage of candidates for headships even worse.
The Grant Maintained Schools Advisory committee calls the idea "an unhappy mix of advisory teacher and internal mentor" in its evidence to the pay review body, adding: "Any provision that takes good teachers away from their class to work in different schools, albeit on a training basis, is certain to disadvantage the teachers' own school, particularly at primary level."
Stephen Szemerenyi, head of Finchley Catholic High School in north London, is not impressed. He points out that heads and school governors have already proved extremely reluctant to award "excellence points" under the current system because their criteria are vague and therefore a potential source of division and jealousy in the staff room.
And appointing ASTs could create problems with parents who will clamour for their child to be taught by the super-teachers. "If the idea was to reward teachers for staying in the classroom, I would support that in principle, " he says. "But these proposals run counter to that.
"I wouldn't be very happy about letting our best teachers go off to other schools, and nor would the governors. We don't want to reduce the quality of our service by making them available elsewhere. Why should we?" Mick Brookes, head of Sherwood Junior School in Warsop, Nottinghamshire says: "Labelling individual members of staff as better than the rest is a recipe for disaster. Some teachers are better than others, but if you wear a badge saying so it doesn't go down very well with the others. I would like to see a climate in schools where all teachers had the time, resources and energy to advance their skills."
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers says the current plan would create a cadre of non-teachers in a semi-advisory role and the introduction of yet another tier into "an already complex and bewildering salary structure".
A better idea, says the union's general secretary, Nigel de Gruchy, would be to revive plans developed before the election by the Teacher Training Agency. This would have involved the creation of a new professional qualification for "expert teacher" to be achieved by competent staff after four or five years in the classroom.
The AST plan is "a bit of sticking plaster for a much more long-term problem", says National Union of Teachers education official John Bangs. "The issue is not how to keep the best teachers in the classroom, but how to ensure the continuing supply of high quality graduates into the profession. The Government must face the issue of teacher supply or all the proposals in the White Paper will be undermined."
John Howson, an analyst specialising in teacher supply, has warned for some time of a looming crisis in recruitment which is now beginning to materialise. Vacancies for classroom teachers are rising. The reason there is not an even more acute shortage is that class sizes have been rising since 1991. If they had been kept at the same size, schools would now be short of 10,000 teachers.
Recruitment patterns in recent years pose particular problems for the AST plan, Mr Howson says. In the booming late 1980s recruitment for teaching was poor because of job opportunities elsewhere - a pattern emerging once again now - so there is a relative shortage of teachers in their 30s who have been in the classroom 10 years or so - precisely the age group which would be ideal for the new dynamic role of AST.
Local authority employers say they are enthusiastic about the White Paper proposals. But some of their own proposals could present problems.
They want the new ASTs to be outside the normal pay and conditions for teachers, not "restricted by traditional working patterns", a position not likely to be welcomed by the unions. And they want funding for the ASTs to be separate from delegated school budgets and therefore not managed by heads.
"This would enable the LEA to co-ordinate the placement of these teachers in schools to maximise their effectiveness," they say. Such a move would be greeted especially coolly by grant-maintained schools whose independence could be at risk.
Reaction to the proposals may be seen by the Blair Government as that of a hide-bound and cynical profession showing a distinct lack of the "can do" culture called for by Mr Blunkett. But after years of ever-changing initiatives, teachers are cautious, and the AST proposals seem to raise as many questions as answers.
"The pay review body will have a job on its hands deciding how these proposals could be implemented," one observer says. "It seems the Government wants to encourage good teachers to stay in the classroom, and it wants to recreate the advisory teacher; two excellent ideas, but they are completely different. "
* Next week: raising standards in the classroom
WHAT PUTS THE SUPER IN TEACHER Advanced Skills Teachers are expected to: * encourage the best teachers to stay in the classroom * play a key role in raising standards by setting an example of high quality teaching * help with induction of newly-qualified teachers * be particularly suited to new education action zones * spend two or three days out of their own school each week * work for a cluster of schools in some cases * be employed by LEAs or education action zones * become associate fellows or professors at higher education institutionsu help with teacher training