Don't impoverish the standard-bearers
The crisis in recruitment, revealed in the surveys published in last Friday's TES, is a "double whammy" for the Government.
A shortage of teachers, and of deputy heads and heads, funding problems which have grown worse over several years, fragile morale that has stubbornly refused to improve and a need to reinforce teacher quality, is a dangerous cocktail for any government. It presents a particular challenge to a government with "education, education, education" as its motto and where judgment, by progress towards national targets, is accepted as an important factor when votes are cast in 2002.
The Government can argue fairly that the previous administration passed it this poisoned chalice. But that only provides temporary political relief. It does not mean that ministers can afford to delay when it comes to tackling the causes of the crisis.
The reality is that the education service is failing to attract enough good honours graduates. Secondary intake figures look rocky, and primary ones are only superficially better because the Conservatives presided over a disastrous decline in pupil:teacher ratios. Yet Labour's new class size policy will have to be underpinned by an influx of infant teachers.
It is no use arguing that a strong economy always leads to teacher recruitment difficulties. We have to break out of this cycle by adopting radical measures. Accordingly, there is a strong case for paying trainee teachers a modest salary in their PGCE year, or the fourth year of their BEd course. Before anybody throws up their hands in horror, may I remind them that payment to trainees in other professions has been accepted practice for years.
Salaries paid to teachers in their early thirties are too low. It should not be necessary to hold a promoted post in order to earn enough for adequate career progression. The Government's Advanced Skills Teacher grade just might provide an answer, but at the moment it looks rather like an idea conceived on the back of a fag packet.
Crucially, in the context of higher standards, there is an urgent need to re-evaluate the salaries paid to heads and deputy heads. It could be argued that this year's surge in resignations before the changes to the pension scheme will not be repeated. But this misses the point. Applications have slumped during the past two years. Something has to be done to attract teachers to fill the most senior posts in the service.
Obviously salaries are not the only issue. Unacceptable pressures, made worse by too much bureaucracy, also have a bearing. Nevertheless, pay levels and inadequate differentials matter greatly, not least when the posts carry considerable responsibilities. Any government which seeks to work against the market does so at its peril.
The Government can reasonably contend that its funding settlement for 1998-99 is the first instalment towards its promise to increase, over a five-year term, the proportion of the Gross Domestic Product spent on education. The trick is to make sure that all the additional funding goes to schools and is not swallowed up in the black hole of local authority administration.
The difficulty comes when the Government seeks to argue that the money must be spent on raising standards and not on teachers' pay - as if there is no connection between the two! Higher standards depend on quality teaching. The Government's many initiatives will come to naught if schools cannot recruit, retain and motivate enough teachers of the right quality. This is not solely a matter of salary levels. But any attempt by the Government to build a wall between standards and salaries is to fly in the face of reality.
Teacher quality is clearly at the heart of the standards debate. Much is being done to improve teaching standards. The new teacher-training curriculum will help provided it does not undermine professionalism. The raft of standards and qualifications from the Teacher Training Agency is a step in the right direction, though the timetable is tight and adequate funding uncertain.
The amount of financial support available for training and development is key to the drive for higher levels of pupil attainment, and the way that is funded needs a complete overhaul. The teaching profession was short-changed by the previous government, when comparison is made with levels of training expenditure in both public and private sector corporations. Local education authorities have been told that they must increase their Grants for Education Support and Training contributions. But there is a danger already that the GEST budget will be raided to pay for the literacy and numeracy initiatives. The Government must find additional money to support its key reforms and stop relying on an outmoded GEST system.
Is it any surprise that heads look enviously at the training grant system used in grant-maintained schools? They see it as a solution to their schools' development needs.
Ultimately, the success of the Government's programme depends on motivation and morale. A new mood has been apparent since the May 1 general election and initiatives have come tumbling out on a weekly basis. Support and pressure, praise and blame have not always been even-handed. Plans to raise the profile of teachers by introducing a General Teaching Council look a touch threadbare. But it would be unwise to adopt a siege mentality in the face of a government agenda which so clearly places education at the heart.
Equally, however, the Government cannot be allowed to argue that recruitment, retention, motivation and morale can be divorced from the drive for higher standards. This means that the Prime Minister will have to decide whether to support the Chancellor or the Education Secretary on the issue of public-sector pay. That decision may prove to be as vital as any made by the Government in the great standards debate.
David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers