THE new training salaries - pound;6,000 for postgraduate trainees from September 2000 with an additional pound;4,000 for those training to teach maths, science, modern foreign languages or technology - are a welcome boost to teacher recruitment. They level the playing field for postgraduate entry to teacher training by removing the financial burden of a further year of training without pay.
Given the buoyant economy, the time was clearly right for this change. Competition for graduates has never been tougher. Teaching has the lion's share, recruiting some 14,000 a year to initial training.
Some have complained that the Government is bribing people to enter teaching. This is not a bribe, nor would a bribe be effective because the postgraduate courses are very hard work. It makes sense to support graduates who want to train as teachers, to take account of the financial commitments that graduates build up while studying for their degree.
Will the salaries allow training providers to hit their recruitment targets? Well, some observers have already braved estimates venturing anything between a 5 and a 20 per cent increase in annual applications. I am always amused when statisticians offer forecasts, especially when they are so cautious about how to measure the here and now. Of course, I will be delighted to see gains in the range predicted but improvements will only happen if we all work together to make recruitment work.
Encouragingly there has been a big initial boost in enquiries. The Teacher Training Agency's teacher information line is receiving twice as many calls - more than 4,000 a week - and the improvements go right across the board. There is greater interest in primary, secondary, in the shortage subjects, and from men and members of minority ethnic groups. This holds out a tantalising prospect: not only more teachers but progress on the wider agenda of ensuring that the profession is fully representative.
Enquiries are not enough. Ask any training provider and they will tell you that enquiries have to be translated into applications, applications turned into acceptances, and places taken up. The TTA will have more to do to support providers in recruiting more professionally, marketing courses better, tracking applications and offering candidates better customer care. There is a lot of hard work ahead and, in a competitive labour market, the price of failure is high.
The wider impact of the training salaries should be to raise everyone's game. More enquiries and more applicationswill lead to a greater choice, between more able candidates. But there is another side because good candidates will bring higher expectations of their training and of the profession.
The postgraduate trainees I meet tend to consider themselves full members of the profession from their first day in training. They have a strong voice and are quick both to praise the good and to criticise what does not work. As their expectations rise further, I expect the whole system to benefit.
This will not come as a surprise to training providers. They have known for years that their best courses are honed on their best trainees - the kind of people who question and test the tutor professionally, as fully as the tutor questions and tests them. Equally, schools know the impact that a good trainee has in lifting the other teachers.
There are concerns about the impact on the four-year undergraduate (BEd) course. Despite the strengths of many of the courses, the numbers choosing this route have fallen. Providers are already building new courses, adapting to changing demand, moving to postgraduate or three-year courses of different types.
Undoubtedly, market conditions have changed and what has been a drift - away from the four-year course - may well become a shift. The undergraduate route is still very important, not least in preparation for teaching in the early years. I have every expectation that providers will respond positively, in keeping with the recruitment markets they know best. The agency will work with them to maintain quality and to improve flexibility and choice.
The profession needs many routes through training and into teaching, which is why the TTA is encouraging more flexible training options. The trick is to tailor training better to individual needs while not compromising standards. There is little point debating the superiority of one route over the rest, especially when the evidence is thin and there are horses for courses. I hear from headteachers these days that they tend to judge prospective recruits on their merits rather than on the training route they choose. That will do me.
Those involved in initial teacher training have been pressing for training salaries for many years. Now that they have arrived, there is the chance to prove their worth. If the salaries lead to improvements in quality as well as quantity, the sector will have the chance to show what it can do with government confidence and investment. Teacher training has never had a better opportunity.
Ralph Tabberer is chief executive of the TTA. The number for the teaching information line is 01254 454454. The website is at www.teach-tta.gov.uk