For years under the Conservatives, education minister after education minister denigrated teachers, libelling many good people as trendy, idle, failures. The intention may have been well-meaning, to focus attention on those teachers who were over-ideological, or simply unable to control classes, and thus to spur teachers to raise their game. But the effect was nearly the opposite. The politically-inspired anti-teacher caricature spread deep into the culture, into television programmes, newspapers, cartoons and novels. It helped demoralise much of the profession. And it certainly put off many students who would have made good, dedicated teachers, and who turned instead to other, less controversial and better- paid professions. By the time Labour came to power, the caricature was beginning to turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Give a dog a bad name ...
The new government has not yet got the tone entirely right. This advertisement, aimed at raising the esteem in which teaching is held, was preceded by early Labour announcements on ``naming and shaming'' bad schools and fast- track sacking procedures for bad teachers. Both are necessary, but it is now essential for the Government, as a matter of national policy, to balance such announcements with powerful pro-teaching messages. It cannot both play to the Daily Mail gallery and at the same time persuade thousands of shrewd, well-qualified people to enter what we call a profession and, too often, treat as a trade.
Tony Blair, and his co-stars, are quite right: we do remember good teachers. Many of us were given our most important life-chances by a single inspirational and energetic adult at the front of a classroom. These inspiring teachers tend to have a rare mix of characteristics - a certain dramatic flamboyance, a profound love of learning, a robust and often witty demeanour, and a dogged persistence, even with slow or unappealing youngsters. More than in most professions, a relatively small number of people can have a dramatic impact on tens of thousands of lives. A school which is unlucky enough to have no exceptional, inspirational, teachers will be a bad, unhappy and failing school.
People may respond that the great teachers will be drawn inexorably into the profession no matter what, just as great musicians are drawn to music. But it is not as simple as that. The combination of a growing cultural prejudice against teachers and low salaries provides a powerful disincentive. None of us really knows how many great teachers became lawyers or sales executives and never met the children they could have transformed. None of us knows how much damage was done.
Repairing it will cost the country more than words: there is no getting away from the salary issue. While the differential between graduates entering the teaching profession (salary around pounds 14,200) and those entering the rest (average graduate starting salary pounds 15-pounds 16,000) is not large, the gap starts to open up alarmingly within a few years, as teachers reach around pounds 22,000. The creation of advanced skills teachers, who can earn more, is a good first step in persuading people to stay in the classroom. But teachers need a more ambitious grade-by-grade career structure. That will cost the country money. Everyone knows that the money won't come quickly. Smaller sums could profitably be spent too on repairing and upgrading some of the grotty classrooms and staff rooms in which teachers spend their working lives.
We return, however, to where we began, the status of teaching. Politics is partly about visions of how it used to be, or will be one day. So we need to picture an Ideal Teacher - the teacher as a pillar of communities; a beacon of literacy and knowledge; a wise guide; a moral activist. This may seem slushy. It is certainly idealistic. But until we extirpate that terrible caricature of the teacher as a slothful anarchist in denim, and replace it with a positive image instead, then we will not get the teachers we want and need. The Ideal Teacher would clearly be respected, properly paid and admired. And that, after all, is precisely what the vast majority of our teachers need from us, and the Government, right now.