The involvement of one of Britain's leading comedians in the latest teacher-recruitment campaign is a sure sign that things are getting serious. By asking John Cleese and other household names to say a public thank you to their favourite teachers, the Teacher Training Agency has acknowledged that it must raise the status of the profession - and fast - if it is to have any hope of achieving its training targets.
Max Clifford's reservations about the TTA's celebrity line-up may be valid . The Full Monty stars might be a better draw than Monty Python in the autumn of 1997. But it is the general perception of teaching,rather than the personalities involved, that is more likely to prove a stumbling-block. A deep well of public cynicism must be drained before the image-builders can make substantial progress.
Perhaps, though, this campaign really will mark the beginning of a more positive attitude towards teaching - from teachers themselves as well as the public. We must also hope that the TTA can bring off a trick that will earn it automatic membership of the Magic Circle: attracting many more high-calibre people by making it harder to get into teaching. Several factors, however, suggest that the feat will prove well-nigh impossible :
Negative publicity: This continues unabated. Some is generated by the Government, which shows no signs of toning down its high-profile drive to root out incompetent teachers, making them seem more numerous than they really are. Some is stimulated by the unions: only this week the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers highlighted the heavy administrative burden that teachers have to bear. Some emanates from individual teachers who have been left jaundiced by the experiences of the past 10 years and see no reason why they should commend teaching to the younger generation. And then there is the press, some factions of which are still resolutely anti-comprehensive.
No extra money: Not for pay at any rate, even though the Institute for Employment Studies found that a 1 per cent fall in relative starting salaries led to a 4 per cent drop in the supply of graduates to teaching.
A relatively buoyant economy: Teaching always looks more appealing when dole queues lengthen. The profession consequently attracted some of its ablest members during the Depression of the 1930s. Now that the economy is healthier, industry, commerce and the media have more jobs not only for scientists and mathematicians but for English and modern languages graduates.
Lack of glamour and career prospects: The TTA itself has reported that only 17 per cent of the public think that teaching offers good career prospects. Almost the only teachers envied are the staffs of Race Leys primary, Warwickshire, and Thackley First School, Bradford, who have scooped millions on the National Lottery.
Tough-looking secondary schools: Although training colleges have no trouble recruiting primary teachers, too many people still believe that only battle-hardened commandos can survive in a secondary school.
The historical legacy: The occupational pecking order in any country can change over time, but it takes many years. The status of teaching has improved since Macaulay said that teachers were "the refuse of all other callings . . . to whom no gentleman would entrust the key of his cellar". Nevertheless, history and common sense suggest that teaching cannot climb to third place in the popularity rankings within only five years.
There are other problems, of course, but these are the most important ones. The TTA campaign, coupled with additional investment in schools and improved teacher training, will doubtless help. At some point, however, extra money will have to be provided for good teachers, rather than for the ad agencies. In America, "greed is good" businessmen such as Michael Milken expiate their sins by showering star teachers with dollars (page 22), but we would be better off heading down the route that the French are exploring (page 21). Higher salaries and sabbaticals for staff in the poorest areas seem like wise moves.
But if we are to see a healthy return on such investments, the Government and its agents must deposit fewer anti-teacher stories in the newshounds' feeding bowl. The Labour Government's modus operandi, "pressure and support", sounds laudable in principle; but if the former is achieved through negative publicity it itends to cancel out the benefits of the latter.