Members of ethnic minorities are suddenly in great demand in the jobs market - or so it seems. The Army wants to see black and Asian Britons in uniform and Prince Charles wants them on the Palace staff. Now the Teacher Training Agency is clamouring for their services.
The attempt to attract ethnic minority teachers into schools is only one aspect of the TTA's game plan and has been partly overshadowed by the select committee report on how to improve teacher supply. Nevertheless, the TTA initiative is significant and long overdue. There will be great debate about the select committee's proposals to create fast tracks for the most academically able trainees. But there is no question that a sustained attempt to recruit more black and Asian teachers will reap substantial rewards.
Sadly - in spite of the fact that ethnic minority recruitment into the classroom has been at a damagingly low level for years - it has taken a crisis to get the TTA to focus on this group as a source of potential teachers. Margaret Hodge's alarming reminder (see Platform, opposite) that one in three maths graduates must enter teaching if recruitment targets are to be met underlines the seriousness of the situation. But it would be simplistic to blame the TTA, local authorities, or even central government for the dearth of minority teachers.
It is true that the Swann Committee highlighted this shortage in 1985 and was ignored when it called for ethnic monitoring of the teaching force - only 2 per cent of teachers are thought to be black or Asian British. However, Britain is not the only nation where such imbalances can be found, and racism and black under-achievement are not the only causes. Research suggests that many factors - economic, demographic, political, sociocultural, psychological and educational - are at work. One fundamental problem is that teaching has little esteem in most Asian communities (see page 6). Ghazala Bhatti of the Open University, who has conducted research into Asian teenagers' career aspirations, reported that teaching "was not even a second or third-choice career".
Research in the United States has produced similar findings. Only 5 per cent of US Asian college graduates are teachers, compared with a quarter of Hispanics and a fifth of African Americans. Female Asian Americans are, however, "over-represented" in higher-status and better-paid professions.
The picture is almost identical in Britain, where a quarter of applications for medical courses come from Asian students. This situation is unlikely to change unless teachers' pay and status increase markedly. But while we wait for that happy day it would be wise to provide taster courses in teaching for ethnic-minority youngsters - and others - even before they reach university. Carefully targeted recruitment advertising which acknowledges cultural differences between ethnic-minority communities might also prove useful. But there is no point in adopting either strategy unless black and Asian British trainee teachers are given a sincere welcome in the staffroom and are protected from the unspoken prejudice that blights too many careers.
More frivolously, the TTA could help its cause by persuading television companies to screen ER Braithwaite's autobiographical To Sir With Love every few weeks. Sidney Poitier's hero teacher, overcoming bigotry in an East London school, is as good a role model as we are likely to get. The sad reality is that Braithwaite himself only went into teaching after 18 months of being told that he was "too well-educated, too good for the lowly jobs, and too black for anything better". But that does not detract from the power of his tale.