The latest figures from the Teacher Training Agency suggest that yet another crisis in teacher supply is looming. Science, mathematics and foreign languages are, as usual, at the sharp end, but now even previously popular subjects such as English, history and geography are showing substantial shortfalls. Technology is worst off of all, with applications two-fifths down on last year and two-thirds down on 1994. Recruitment is having to come from ever smaller pools, so there are also serious concerns about quality.
The new Government must be alarmed at what it has inherited. All its hopes and aspirations for education will be put at risk if it cannot attract and retain high-quality teachers. It may perhaps be tempted to resort to some of the measures that helped us through the last crisis - bursaries, improved marketing, revised targets - before we were rescued by the deep economic recession of the early Nineties.
But I would urge it, given the opportunities it has at this stage of its administration, to go beyond palliatives to a radical re-structuring. If ministers were prepared to think the unthinkable, among the things they should consider would be replacing the postgraduate certificate in education with a paid graduate traineeship, recognising different levels of expertise and experience through the proposed General Teaching Council, and encouraging university departments of education to re-focus on pedagogy - the art and science of teaching.
The PGCE has a long and largely successful history, but it has been so pulled and pushed around in response to demands, first from the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, and then the TTA and the Office For Standards in Education, that it has lost its shape. It is also out of step with the training schemes for many other graduate occupations.
A new graduate undecided between teaching and management, for example, is faced with a choice between remaining a student or going to work for a major company as a salaried employee. The problem of teacher recruitment must therefore be exacerbated by the thought of an extra year running up debts rather than starting to pay them off, and other financial disadvantages, such as losing a year's pension contributions.
Replacing the PGCE by a salaried graduate traineeship would not only put entry into teaching on to a more equitable footing, but also provide a timely opportunity to re-think the nature of the training itself. There would, I think, be little disagreement that teacher training should embrace at least four components: ensuring a good understanding of the subject to be taught; training in the means and methods of teaching it; providing supervised and systematic classroom practice; and allowing some opportunity to reflect on the role of education.
But they neither have to, nor in fact can they, be provided in one 36-week course. A flexible structure is needed to allow for different people training to teach different subjects at different stages of education through different modes and in different locations. Some entrants may require a "top-up" in particular subjects. Some subjects, like the sciences, may require longer on organising them for the classroom.
Reflecting on education could for some be left to a later stage. The proposed new GTC would seem the ideal body to establish the requirements for a graduate traineeship. As a further step towards making teaching a more attractive profession, it should also be asked to work out a career structure for classroom teachers.
It could perhaps, following the example of engineers, arrive at a series of steps leading through incorporated to chartered status. The different grades would be linked to salary so that advancement would not depend on leaving the classroom. (We have so few chemists and physicists in schools because, being scarce, they often get a flying start in salary increments and are soon off to posts of responsibility.) Among the experience that would count towards gaining incorporated and chartered status would be sabbaticals taken in university subject departments or relevant industrial environments. This would enable and encourage teachers to revitalise and refresh themselves in their subjects and gain credit for it. It would also recognise how draining an activity teaching is and, by providing an opportunity to recharge the batteries, help stem the flow from the profession.
Graduate traineeships and chartered status would not only make teaching more attractive, but have profound consequences for university departments of education. It would clear the way for those that were so minded to re-invent themselves as departments of pedagogy. With this as their prime concern (it is surprising that it has not always been, given the experience of many other countries), they would be in a better position to support schools and help the Government carry through its programme.
The proposed literacy and numeracy targets, for example, lay the onus on primary schools to get all children, irrespective of their starting points, up to specified levels. It will matter not that the children find learning difficult, have low-income backgrounds, or use English as a second language; the schools will be expected to get them there. This raises important pedagogical questions which we should look to the universities to answer.
Teacher supply has been a long-standing problem with brief respites in recessions. It will not be easy to reverse the downward trend. But improved entry prospects through graduate traineeships, greater recognition and rewards through chartered status, and better support through university departments of pedagogy would, I believe, offer a real chance of doing so.
Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University