One answer has been to open up new routes into the profession, particularly for mature entrants. And as a result, the country's biggest single provider of new teachers is now the Open University. Around 1,000 new teachers are emerging every year from its initial teacher training programme, most of whom have come from work or training in some other profession.
The average age of the new teacher is 34. When the OU's Post Graduate Certificate in education (PGCE) programme took its first recruits in 1994, it was the country's first fully-developed initial teacher training programme to offer part-time study.
Its aim was to tap into a perceived reservoir of talent - people in and around the 30-45 age group who may be considering a career change to teaching, but for financial or other reasons were unable to take year out to train full-time.
A part-time course spread over 18 months, with in-school experience divided up into blocks of three to six weeks, was devised to allow would-be teachers to fit their training around their jobs and/or family commitments.
The course was innovative in content too. One of its key elements is the use of information technology as an integral part of the learning experience. Every student joining the PGCE programme is loaned (free of charge) a computer, printer and modem to prepare work and to take part in electronic conferencing with tutors and other students.
Close partnerships with individual schools are also key to the programme: student teachers themselves select the school where they do their main placement (teaching practice). Within the school they are allocated a mentor - a trained and experienced teacher, to support them.
"The majority of people who do the course are between 26 and 48, and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds," says Penny Lewis, Deputy Director of the PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education) programme. "They are people who have other skills and life experience to bring to their teaching. These can be really valuable to the school and to the children." Greeted with suspicion in some quarters when it was first launched, the programme has proved that it can produce high-quality teachers; this was recognised with the award of a Queens Anniversary Prize for Further and HIgher Education in 1996. Already the OU's School of Education is embarking on the planning of its PGCE Mark 2, due to replace the current programme in 2001. But how to go about equipping teachers for the new millennium?
The key is flexibility, made possible by new technology, according to the School of Education's lecturer in primary education Hilary Burgess.
"We are looking at structuring the new course so that there will be some printed materials which are central, such as the course guide; but other elements will be produced in a multimedia format - which means they can be changed very quickly."
The high priority being given to education by the government naturally leads to a keen interest in teacher training. In April this year the Department for Education and Employment produced its Circular 4/98 which, effectively, creates for the first time a "national curriculum" for teacher training.
"If you look at the number of changes made to the national curriculum for schools since it came into being, it's likely that this one, too, will be changed and refined over time," says Hilary. "Hence the need for a course which can respond quickly."
What kind of technology will it use? Online conferencing and computers are already an integral part of the course and will remain so, and it seems likely that CD-ROM and the Internet will play a key role. Technology changes and educational fads and fashions come and go, but the PGCE Mark II will aim to do what its predecessor is doing - provide teachers with a range of strategies to call on, says Penny Lewis.
"A good teacher is one who knows their class, understands what their needs are , and provides the methods which enable them to learn."
Further information: 01908 858585; or ww.open.ac.uk/ OU/Academic/Education/pgce
From counter to classroom
Fiona Hims, 33, was a Marks & Spencer manager when she discovered her vocation for teaching. Before joining the PGCE programme she took her degree with the OU. She has two sons aged eight and six.
"I left school after A levels and joined the Marks & Spencer junior management training course. As I went on, I found that what I enjoyed was training other people.
"Also, as my children got older and I was involved in their cognitive development, I found it interesting and I realised it would be possible to juggle being a teacher and bringing up young children.
"I started studying for a degree with the OU in 1990, with the intention of going on to full time teacher training when I had finished - but my circumstances changed when I got divorced in 1994. When the OU brought out their part-time PGCE I was very pleased. The advantage of this kind of study is flexibility. I can manage my time to ensure I have enough time with my children.
"I chose to go into primary teaching because I'm a bit of a 'jack of all trades' - my degree specialised in science but I also enjoy maths, sport, English and so on.
"I found I could bring my management skills to the coursework - particularly in preparation and organisation.
"The good thing about the OU is that it values mature students and shows them how to put their people and work skills to use. I'm not sure that would have happened on a full-time course where most of the other students were 22-year-olds.
"I was a complete technophobe at first - but after a session at my day school in May on how to use the system, it made a real difference. Once you've logged on you feel you are not alone, you are in touch with other people who are experiencing the same things as you.
"My school placement was in a private school teaching 7- 11 year olds. I had a wonderful mentor who really supported me, practically and emotionally. And I've now been offered a full-time job in the same school, starting in September."
'Out from an ivory tower'
Dr Kay Middleton, 35, had been doing post-doctoral research with the University of Birmingham for four years when she decided to change careers and become a teacher. Married with a one-year-old daughter, she survived teaching practice in a notoriously difficult secondary school.
"My father had been a teacher and a headmaster, so I've always been interested in teaching. But I was put off by people saying 'don't do it - it's a terrible career'. The media, particularly, project a poor image of teaching.
"I worked for five years in industry then went to do my PhD at Birmingham and carried on. Finally I decided I didn't want to work in an ivory tower for the rest of my life, I wanted to get out and meet some real people.
"I enjoy working with young people - I've run a Brownie pack and done youth work with 14- to 17- year-olds. I used to help the kids with their homework. I found a got a lot back from it.
"I found it hard work, particularly towards the end of the course when everything seemed to come at once. Also, I started the course in February, and my daughter was born in July.
"One of the advantages of doing the OU course is that you can choose the school where you do your placement and I chose carefully - a school with a tough reputation and lots of children with special needs.
"I thought it would be a challenge; to cope I would have to learn to be a really good teacher.
"It was hard - you wouldn't believe some of the things those children did. There was some aggression and abuse, and one child who would just get up and walk out in the middle of a lesson.
"But the best part was the mentoring system - I had someone to help me handle difficult situations.
"I'm starting my first full time job in September - in another school with similar needs. I think I got the job because of my school placement - they thought 'if she can cope there, she can cope anywhere'."
FOR ASPIRING HEADS
NATIONAL standards for headteachers are demanding.
Aspiring heads can find out how they measure up to the job by applying to take a supported open learning (SOL) pathway to the new National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), developed by the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) and now available through the OU.
Despina Pavlou, a deputy headteacher of a 1,000-pupil mixed
comprehensive school in Oxfordshire,is applying for headships, having successfully completed the compulsory module by the SOL route.
While having no previous experience of OU-style study, she said it had "helped to crystallise my pedagogical thinking and vision. It may prove to be a route to an eventual doctorate. I know that it has steered me towards my first headship."
For details of how to register for the SOL route to the NPQH, call 01444 472478.