Sprint start to high office
In this season of new resolutions, you could see the Government Green Paper, Teachers Meeting the Challenge of Change, as a metaphor for looking in the mirror, taking stock and deciding on a bit of an overhaul. Overweight? Go pump iron to get rid of the flab. Complexion dull? Then shift your diet from chips with everything to lots of fruit and vegetables. Feeling frumpy, low in self-esteem and out of date? Go out and buy some new clothes.
The Government's proposals are no less radical, positive and, in some parts, shocking than resolving to transform yourself from Adrian Mole to Leonardo DiCaprio. But these are not cosmetic measures. They are about bringing the teaching profession into line with other professions, raising its status and image and promoting it as a desirable walk of life. They are also about survival of the fittest - and possibly youngest.
For newly qualified teachers, the most interesting proposal in the Green Paper is that of a national fast-track scheme, some aspects of which will begin to be piloted in September 1999. Extra training and support would be given to "the most promising" trainees and teachers earning below the pound;23,000 pay threshold, allowing them to earn more in less time than their colleagues. In addition to academic excellence and a high standard of subject knowledge, applicants would need to demonstrate good communication skills and "the ability to inspire".
A new teacher who is one of the 1,000 chosen every year to be a fast-tracker could reach the pay threshold in half the time it takes other teachers and could become subject leaders by the age of 27. If they keep up the momentum, they could be headteachers by their mid-30s. With the proposed hike in teachers' pay scales, that could mean a salary of pound;70,000.
But like all things in life, there's more to fast-tracking than wealth and status. There's no such thing as a no-strings promise of rapid advancement accompanied by a pot of gold. The first strings are the rigorous selection process. Candidates will be put forward either via a national graduate recruitment scheme or through nomination during training or in the early years of teaching. The Green Paper suggests that up to 5 per cent of all teachers could eventually be on the fast-track.
If you make it over the first hurdle, there is then the question of whether you're prepared to comply with "supplementary contractual requirements". These might mean between four and six weeks of extra work, which would be spent on leadership training and industry placements.
Fast-trackers would also be expected to be mobile. They will be appointed to certain schools in the same way that highly paid advanced skills teachers or "superteachers" are, to provide excellence where it is most needed, no matter how far that is from where they live or would like to be. They would need to be willing to be moved around, too, from one placement to another as and when required.
Professor Michael Newby, chair of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, takes a cautious view of the proposals. "David Blunkett is right. We want a world class teaching profession in this country and the Green Paper contains some interesting ideas that we need to look at.
"But it's not easy to see how young graduates could be scouted for 'inspirational' qualities. There's also the problem of creating a split profession, where a minority are fast-tracked, mobile and highly paid and everyone else is immobile and poorly paid. And then there's the gender issue. The majority of primary teachers are women who can't move around the country because of their families. For women who have been working for some time and have these commitments, it will be hard for them to go this route.
"It looks likely to be a question of 'have fast track qualifications, will travel'. But on the other hand, you could say that these are things that happen in any other profession."
The National Union of teachers is less diplomatic in its assessment. "It's an unnecessary addition to the important debate of how you recognise experience and skills," says head of education John Bangs. "The assumption of fast-tracking is that you can speed teachers through the system without their having to gain experience. The union sees it as having the potential to divide teachers as well as disregarding their skills and experience."
It remains to be seen how the final proposals will look, how they are implemented when they are introduced next autumn and, most of all, whether the consequences of fast-tracking are in line with the Government's vision. Will it bring greater professionalism and job satisfaction to those who make the grade? It looks likely. But what will it mean for the rest of the profession?
CRUX OF THE GREEN PAPER
Each year 1,000 fast-trackers will be selected by strict criteria - combining academic ability and a high level of subject knowledge with good communication skills - to work in particular schools.
They will take half the time to reach the pay threshold as non fast-trackers. Because of their accelerated pace through the profession, they could become headteachers by the time they are in their mid-30s.
* For all classroom teachers, a new pay spine will be introduced, with the top rate of pound;30-pound;35,000.
* When any teacher reaches point 9 (pound;22,410) they can apply to cross the threshold to a higher pay level, amounting to an immediate 10 per cent increase up to pound;35,000 initially. To do this, they will undergo internal assessments by their headteacher, aided by heads of department or deputies. An external assessor will review the evidence presented by the head showing that the teacher demonstrates professional skill against national standards and will observe the candidate's teaching style.
* Teachers progressing up a leadership spine can become advanced skills staff earning up to pound;40,000.
* They may carry on up to school management, where earnings can reach pound;70,000.