A new contract which extends the school day and paves the way for evening and weekend shifts in return for salaries of up to pound;40,000 is proposed by heads as a solution to the growing recruitment crisis.
The National Association of Head Teachers has seized the initiative in becoming the first union to respond to school standards minister Stephen Byers' call for a new flexible teaching contract for open-all-hours schools. He has made it clear he intends to scrap the current contract of 1,265 hours a year over 195 days.
The contract proposed by the NAHT would be linked to a new salary scale paying teachers with no extra responsibilities up to pound;31,000.
"I think it is realistic in the context of a recruitment crisis which is building up in secondary schools and looming in primary,'' David Hart, the general secretary told the conference in Eastbourne.
New figures revealed at the NAHT's conference show the depth of the recruitment problems, with secondary teacher training courses predicted to be 5,000 students short of target this year.
The NAHT proposals are an attempt to head off moves to cut teachers' holidays and impose a new contract. The Commons Education select committee chair Margaret Hodge has floated the idea of a longer working year and last week proposed wider use of assistants and information technology to meet the recruitment shortfall - an idea echoed by the Teacher Training Agency.
The NAHT is proposing a basic 37-and-a-half hour week contract, plus obligatory parents' meetings, for the existing 39-week year. It would give heads the flexibility to bring in staff to work, for example, from lunchtime to mid-evening to run homework or sports clubs, or to agree additional contracts for extra pay to work weekends.
The controversial clause requiring teachers to do anything else necessary to complete their duties would go, with heads instead relying on teachers' professionalism. It also assumes the new agreement on cutting bureaucracy will make a significant impact.
Teachers would start on pound;16,000 with automatic increments up to pound;23,000. Further annual increments would take them up to pound;31,000 if the head judges they have shown "acceptable levels of sustained performance" over the year. Higher salaries, up to pound;40,000, would reward management posts.
The proposal would cost pound;200 million in the first year rising to pound;1.6 billion after eight years. "`That is not excessive if you're going to bring good honours graduates into teaching,'' Mr Hart said.
Applications for secondary teacher-training courses are running 13 per cent down compared to the same time last year, with the biggest declines in maths (26 per cent) and science (21 per cent) - areas where there is already a shortage.
Heads told of their difficulty in hiring suitable staff - particularly for middle management posts and in London where the worst-hit primary schools were staffed almost entirely by Australian and New Zealand supply teachers working for a term before backpacking round Europe.
Walthamstow head and NAHT council member Mike Russell said: "We've had several children who have been taught for two years by Antipodean supply teachers who were the most experienced teachers in their school apart from the head and deputy."