A "GROUND-BREAKING" initiative to tackle primary staff shortages in the Highlands is set to loosen the stranglehold of central belt teacher training.
Matthew MacIver, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, told the launch of the joint Aberdeen University and Highland Council course in Inverness last week: "If we are serious about recruitment into the profession, we have to look at rural areas."
It is the first part-time course to train student teachers through distance learning techniques, with online access to fellow students and the university's support materials.
Twenty-six mature students, including five who want to become Gaelic-medium education teachers, have been selected from a pool of 180 applicants, underlining the untapped demand in many rural areas for careers in primary classrooms - provided training is offered locally.
Part-time training is an emerging option at Strathclyde University, which has run a similar course with five local authorities for the past two years, but the 15 students work regularly through the campus at Jordanhill in Glasgow.
The Aberdeen University-led course will reach students scattered across the Highlands who are unable to leave home to train in the cities. They will join the 60 one-year primary postgraduate students at Aberdeen for induction training during the first three weeks of term, then return home.
Special network days on Saturdays will support the students, each of whom will be linked to a local tutor.
Mr MacIver described the present system of initial teacher education (ITE), based around the seven university providers, as "rigid and inflexible".
He said: "It is largely based in the central belt and is so set up that if you live in certain parts of the country, the idea of being a teacher is not an option for you. If we are serious about recruitment into the profession, we have to look at rural areas where I believe there are many people who would love to be teachers but who cannot afford to spend a year away from their families.
"Until now, there have been no distance learning courses for such aspiring teachers. It's amazing."
No other course had met the specific needs of one local authority. "We will need flexibility in terms of the needs of employers, teachers and providers; we will need flexibility in terms of location, timing, duration and delivery of courses and we will need a new system for a new world," Mr MacIver said.
Bruce Robertson, Highland's education director, said the problem was encapsulated by a classroom assistant in Dingwall who had to disrupt her family life for 10 months to take the one-year primary course at Jordanhill, sometimes not returning home at weekends. "To make the commitment to become a teacher was wonderful but this was fundamentally wrong," Mr Robertson said.
Peter Peacock, Education Minister, said the course was "a very significant step forward" and underlined the Scottish Executive commitment to recruit more primary teachers and cut class sizes. Many mature students had left good careers to go into teaching.
Cathy Macaslan, dean of education at Aberdeen University, said a complex set of arrangements involved the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, the Scottish Executive and the GTC.
"Man had been to the moon and Dolly the sheep had been invented but teacher training was still in the cities," she said.