John Howson, one of the country's leading authorities on teacher recruitment, has recently been wearing the worried expression of someone who has had a glimpse of the future and realised that it will not work.
He has analysed the latest breakdown of applications for places on Postgraduate Certificate in Education courses starting in September 1996 and has made a grim discovery. Only 60 per cent of the places for prospective maths teachers are likely to be filled.
Science and modern languages could be seriously undersubscribed too - and the figures for craft, design and technology are likely to be calamitous as applications have slumped by more than a half over the past year.
These are by no means the biggest problems that the Teacher Training Agency has to contend with. Its main headache is that the Government has asked it to recruit 47 per cent more secondary teachers and 34 per cent more primary staff between 199596 and 2000-01 (see table below) to compensate for increasing pupil numbers and a rising retirement rate among an ageing teaching force.
The primary target seems feasible even though the Government has emphasised that teachers' salaries cannot be made more attractive - there are more than three applications for every primary training place. But it is hard to see how the agency will be able to recruit 25,150 secondary trainees by the year 2000-01 when it is struggling to find 18,900 for next September and three-quarters of higher education institutions are having difficulty finding school placements for today's trainees.
The TTA's surprisingly upbeat officials describe their daunting task as a "challenge". But such euphemisms irk John Howson, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University.
"The crisis is upon us," he says, measuring his words carefully. "It's the worst position we have been in since the raising of the school-leaving age in 1972."
So why have things gone so badly awry when it was being said only three years ago that even the perennial physics teacher shortage was over? "Complacency, " he says. "The pay review body has failed to take market forces fully into account and has been complacent about recruitment data, appearing to rely on outdated statistics from Government sources. Furthermore, the Department for Education and Employment hasn't tracked labour supply trends effectively. Its manpower planning unit was wiped out in the early 1990s and there seems to have been a blind assumption that the department would dole out a few numbers and, hey presto, we would get the teachers we need."
Benign neglect of teacher supply can work well enough when there is a recession and a shrinking job market for graduates. But as the long-awaited green shoots of recovery began to appear last year the number of undergraduates withdrawing their applications for teacher training places started to climb.
"The people who withdrew were those who had made what I would call 'insurance applications' in case they couldn't get another job," John Howson explains. "Last year about 19 per cent of applicants pulled out and I expect this trend to continue."
Another statistic concerns him even more, however: 25 per cent of students who complete a PGCE course are still not teaching nine months later. No doubt many of them also regard the PGCE as an insurance policy. But there is another important reason for this huge wastage which is costing many millions of pounds a year (the annual teacher-training bill is currently Pounds 151 million). Institutions have been training huge numbers of mature students - approximately half of all trainee teachers are over 25 - who are subsequently unable to get jobs.
Eighty per cent of under-25s who gained PGCEs in 1992 were working as teachers by March 1993 whereas only 61 per cent of 44 to 54-year-olds and two-thirds of the 35-44 age group had found jobs. This is partly because they are more expensive to recruit, but also because they are less able to move to where the jobs are owing to family commitments.
We should ask ourselves why we are training so many 35-year-olds in the North-east, for example, when many of the vacancies are in the South, Howson says, a point that will become even more pertinent if the New Zealanders who have been plugging London's gaps accept their government's invitation to return home to reduce class sizes.
"The problem is that the nexus between employer and trainer - once so strong - has been broken," Howson says. "The analogy I would offer is of Marks Spencer contracting out its graduate training scheme to business schools and then recruiting only those suitable who lived in the areas where they need staff. Marks Spencer would be too sensible to do that, of course. School-centred initial training schemes provide a partial answer in that they can train for their group of schools."
It isn't only secondary specialists and the under-30s who are in short supply, however. Blacks, Asians - and men - are still too rarely seen in many staffrooms, a problem that the TTA is also vexed about. Increasing the number of training places in institutions that are well-placed to recruit ethnic-minority students is one way of dealing with the first of these problems, Howson says.
"As for men, we have to persuade them that teaching can be an exciting career. But it's also true that it is harder for a man than a woman to gain a place on a PGCE course. Is it because the men are less well qualified or because women do most of the recruiting and there's reverse bias?" The bias against teaching that Howson detects on TV and in the press also irritates him and he is convinced it is part of the reason why the profession is experiencing recruitment problems even though universities are producing record numbers of graduates.
Anthea Millett, director of the TTA, agrees that teaching has an image problem but she believes that teachers must accept part of the blame. She told the North of England Conference earlier this month: "Teachers are potentially the best advocates of the profession yet generally they are bad at it. If teachers display the pride and confidence that they ought to feel in their own profession we shall do even better in securing high-quality entrants."
The TTA isn't settling back to wait for that improbable eventuality, however. Galvanised by its targets, the agency has devised a range of strategies for boosting recruitment without having to accept less able or motivated students. "We're aware that the present funding system is basically a 'bums on seats' one," a TTA official admitted. "But we're anxious that the new system of funding teacher training that is out for consultation will reward quality. "
The TTA, however, appears less anxious about the high proportion of mature trainees even though it accepts that the teaching force's age profile is unbalanced. It hopes to persuade armed forces personnel and redundant executives to retrain as teachers and is even targeting research scientists having been told that many are ready for a career change by their late 30s.
The TTA, in tandem with Hill and Knowlton, the private agency that has taken over the work of the Teaching as a Career Unit, is also planning careers roadshows, funding taster courses and producing recruitment videos. A careers "hotline" has been opened and it dealt with 12,000 enquiries between September and December.
But TTA offficials chant the same mantra when fielding questions about the recruitment campaign: "We can't do everything from our offices in Victoria. " It is therefore encouraging local education authorities, HE institutions, training and enterprise councils and industry to set up regional networks that will help to identify and meet teacher supply needs.
Howson sympathises with the TTA officials' unenviable position but is sceptical about some of their claims. He thinks it will be very difficult for them to ensure high quality training because of the geographical mismatch between jobs and training-providers. "I suspect they will have to tell some good providers in the wrong parts of the country 'we don't want you' and some less good ones will get more training places," he predicts.
Another unpalatable fact - at least for primary staff - is that more financial inducements such as additional responsibility posts will have to be dangled by the secondary sector if quotas are to be met. "The sad truth is that secondary schools are seen as more difficult places to work in," Howson says. "Society is failing to deal with the problems associated with adolescence so it isn't surprising that front-line jobs like teaching are proving difficult to fill. There are only so many martyrs."
* The number of school-age children in England will rise from the present total of 7,945,500 to 8,312,500 by the year 2000.
* In 1986 12 per cent of male teachers and 24 per cent of their female colleagues were aged under 30. In 1994 the corresponding percentages were 9 and 16.
* Hill and Knowlton, the London agency that is promoting teaching as a career, has an 18-month contract worth Pounds 1.5 million.
* From next year 2,500 students will be studying for part-time distance-learning PGCEs. The first private company to become involved in this training, the Reading-based Centre for British Teachers, is offering 40 places to unqualified staff in independent schools from September. This course is currently managed by South Bank University.
* This year's PGCE students are the last that will be offered Pounds 1, 000 bursaries for training to be teachers of shortage subjects. The Government withdrew the bursaries believing that they made little impact on recruitment figures and hopes to channel the Pounds 10 million bursary pool into more imaginative recruitment projects. Training institutions have been invited to bid for the cash but it will be another month before the money is allocated - a delay that has been criticised by those who believe the lack of financial incentives will discourage potential applicants.
* History is the most over-subscribed subject in teacher training. By last month the Graduate Teacher Training Registry had already received 1,465 applications for the 819 places available in 1996-97.
* A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Teacher Training Agency confirmed that most people regard teaching as a profession with status. Eighty-eight per cent of those surveyed thought teaching would be personally rewarding but only 17 per cent believed that it offered good career opportunities.