Boosting the esteem of the teaching profession to attract more top graduates is a well-worn aspiration of politicians. But new figures in England show that the proportion of trainees in universities boasting at least a 2:1 degree has already risen dramatically to 65 per cent this year.
The number - up from just over half in 1998 - was revealed as the government launched a fresh drive to raise the bar for entry to teaching. For the first time, training institutions will be given targets for the number of teachers they should recruit with the best degrees.
From next year, more than 70 per cent of recruits will be expected to have at least a 2:1 to train as a primary school teacher or to teach secondary English, geography or music. For history, the figure stands at 84 per cent. On maths courses, 60 per cent of trainees should have a 2:1 or above.
Within five years, English schools and universities should recruit the "same quality" of teachers as the best-performing education systems in the world, according to the Westminster government.
Michael Gove, the education secretary, wants the country to emulate the example of nations such as Finland, Singapore and Canada, where teaching is restricted to top graduates only. It is hoped that new chemistry and physics scholarships for exceptional graduates, and a new school-based training course, will help to meet this ambitious aim.
Charlie Taylor, chief executive of the new Teaching Agency, which oversees teacher training, wants it to be more competitive. "In England we have two to three applications per training place; for Teach First courses it is seven and in Finland it is 10. I would like this country to be in that position," he said. "I would like us to be training more really great people, and that building over time so it gets more competitive to get on a teacher training course, the status of teaching grows and learning improves."
The new training course, School Direct, which is being piloted this year, allows schools to recruit and train their own staff in partnership with universities. A total of 84 per cent of trainees on the pilot course have a 2:1 degree or above.
James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, said he "endorsed" the new targets. "We agree in principle - we all want to raise the bar as long as other aspects of trainees' skills are taken into account," he said. "But using degree class doesn't work in all cases. You have to look at people in the round."
Martin Thompson, chairman of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers, said he was concerned that the use of a 2:1 degree would not be an accurate way of assessing teacher quality, particularly for primary trainees. He is calling on ministers to commission research that could prove the link between degree class and teacher performance.
He said: "If they want to improve the standard of teaching, they need to look at the support given to teachers in their first two to three years."