What is David Blunkett offering to teachers that will improve their lot and attract and keep talented staff? Jon Slater reports.
The sheer size of the exodus from teaching, and the reluctance of graduates to consider it as a profession, has at last forced the Government to act.
At the heart of New Labour's Green Paper, Teachers meeting the challenge of change, published last month, is an admission that society can no longer rely on teachers' goodwill. It has to pay them what they are worth. But in return the Government wants a more dynamic profession. A profession of fast-trackers, highly-skilled teachers and super-heads. A profession that offers higher standards in return for higher pay.
Certainly, something needs to be done. After years of low pay awards and constant criticism, the fact is that not enough of our bright young people want to become teachers. Even those who do the training are turning their back on the profession. Forty out of every 100 students who train as primary teachers fail to make it into the classroom the year they qualify.
Ministers hope that a new pay structure - which holds out the possibility of some classroom teachers being paid up to pound;40,000 - will tackle the problem. Teachers who reach the current threshold at nine points in the pay scale will be able to apply for a performance assessment. If they pass, they will move on to the higher scale. Movement up both scales will depend on satisfactory appraisals.
Union reaction has been mixed, perhaps mirroring uncertainty within the profession. Doug McAvoy, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Any profit-related pay is open to cronyism and discrimination." Nigel de Gruchy, his counterpart at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, gave the Green Paper a "guarded welcome".
But teachers' reactions are crucial. The Government's recent charm offensive is a recognition that the plans cannot succeed without teachers' support. Sixth formers deciding on a university course are unlikely to choose teaching if their own teachers present a negative image of the profession. The recruitment crisis can only be solved if teachers themselves become advocates for the profession.
Whether the new pay structure wins teachers' backing will depend on the detail. How many teachers will benefit? How will schools afford to pay these staff? How will performance be measured?
Education Secretary David Blunkett said: "Over time we expect a majority of teachers to be of a standard to cross that threshold." But he did not say how soon. If, in the first few years, only a small minority benefit then he could have a revolt on his hands.
In response to concerns that schools will not be able to afford more expensive staff, the Government has promised that extra resources will be "clearly identified". This will be vital - especially for small schools. If resources are not earmarked, excellent, experienced teachers may still find themselves unemployable.
Assessment will be even more important. The Green Paper outlines an annual appraisal system based on classroom observation, pupil progress and school performance. Teachers applying to move on to a higher pay scale will be assessed by their head, whose judgment would be approved by an external assessor.
The new system must be fair and seen to be so. Unjust pay differentials would be a recipe for staffroom conflict and bad morale. Designing the detail of the system will be taxing the best brains at the Department for Education and Employment in the coming months - they cannot afford to get it wrong.
But tackling pay alone is unlikely to be enough. Yes, teachers want to be better rewarded but working conditions are equally important. Many teachers feel over-worked as well as under-paid.
The Green Paper recognises this. It holds out the hope that hard-pressed teachers will get more help. It proposes an extra 20,000 qualified teaching assistants.
This will be particularly welcome for those teaching at key stage 2, where class sizes are rising and the literacy and numeracy strategies are adding to the workload. But the Government's ability to cut class sizes, improve buildings and provide equipment may be more important in the long run.
Whatever the future holds, teachers have won an important battle. Ministers have at last acknowledged that if they are to raise standards in schools then teachers need to be more than competent - but they also need to be better paid and have their working conditions improved.
The consultation period for the Green Paper ends on March 31. You can send your views to DFEE Teachers, Freepost, 13th Floor,Crown House, LintonRoad, Barking,Essex IG11 8BR