Margaret Hodge, chair of the Education Select Committee, offers a surprising solution to the growing recruitment crisis in schools
The teaching profession is in the middle of a recruitment crisis and it will not be solved by an advertising campaign alone. This year the number of undergraduates studying to enter the profession has fallen by 11 per cent compared with last year. Projected figures for next year show an even greater fall. Of those who do study teaching, almost a quarter will never work in a classroom.
The problem, however, is not just quantity but quality. The average A-level grades of all undergraduates is around three Cs; for those doing undergraduate teaching courses it is two Ds and a C. In one teacher-training institution nine out often students had A-level grades no better than two Ds and an E. Without improving these figures, can we really give teaching the status it deserves?
A recent study by the Centre for Education and Employment Research found that a fifth of primary-school and more than a quarter of secondary-school posts were difficult to fill. In inner London the figure was almost a half. In more than 50 per cent of cases the problem was the poor quality of the applicants.
Things are not going to get better. The number of school-age children is expected to rise steadily until 2004; the government has made a welcome commitment to cut class sizes for Key Stage 1 pupils; and there are increasing numbers of pupils identified as having special needs who need more individual attention. The demand for teachers is likely to rise rather than fall.
Sadly the teachers themselves - or at least their representatives - are not much help in improving the profession's image. Much of the profession remains stuck in a 1970s time warp. When the public think of teachers, they think of militant unions, resistance to change and long holidays. The image does the majority of hard-working, dedicated teachers no justice.
In some ways the teachers' attitudes are understandable. They are fed up with the constant flux in our schools. The introduction of the National Curriculum, independent inspection and league tables have all increased their burdens. And the Labour government's changes - notably the targets for raising literacy and numeracy standards - have created even more pressures.
Yet those targets are vital to raising standards. Parents would, quite rightly, be outraged if we turned the clock back.
So what is to be done? We must face facts. We should not accept people into teaching purely to make up the numbers. It damages children's education and does no favours to anyone, least of all the individuals themselves. A friend of mine was telling me the other day about a chemistry teacher who completely lost the respect of his pupils and ended up locked in his own store cupboard.
We must recognise the real possibility that not enough high-quality people will ever want to be teachers.
But the point is that we may not need them; we should be thinking of employing fewer teachers, not more. Over the next few years information technology will revolutionise our schools. Distance learning is about to become a reality. Teachers will be able to keep up to date with best practice, children will be able to follow programmes which are more closely tailored to their individual needs and the use of interactive software could replace more formal lessons.
In a few years, I believe, some classes will not be led by a fully trained teacher. This may sound heretical, but it is common sense. If pupils are working from lessons on the Internet, a …