Vacancies for primary school teachers in England have fallen to a third of what there were five years ago as pupil numbers have declined.
Figures released by the Department for Education and Skills show how the total number of secondary teachers has significantly overtaken that for primary teachers, while the number of support staff is swiftly catching up.
Vacancies for teachers peaked most recently in 2001. Since then the percentage of teacher posts in England that are unfilled has fallen from 1.2 per cent to 0.4 per cent for primary schools and 1.4 to 0.8 for secondary schools The fall in vacancies has meant there is now a greater proportion of empty teaching posts in primary schools in Wales than there is any region of England, except for London and the East. Schools in London continue to have the highest vacancies, with primaries in the centre of the city six times as likely to be seeking staff as those in the East Midlands.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the lack of vacancies was positive for primaries as it meant fewer were under-staffed.
However, he said it would force primary teachers to travel further for work. "That's all right if you're young and footloose, but it's a different matter if you have a family with children in school," he said.
Angie Larcombe, 38, qualified as a primary teacher three years ago but has been unable to find a permanent post in Cornwall since then and is now applying to become a teaching assistant.
"It's not ideal, but it's the only way I can keep on getting experience while I wait for a teaching job," she said. "It took me eight years to become qualified. Moving isn't an option as my husband's job is here and we can't afford it."
While primary teachers outnumbered their colleagues in secondary schools as recently as 2000, that situation is now reversed: the total number of qualified teachers working regularly in secondary schools in England increased by 3,490 to 204,080 this year while the number for primary schools fell by 530 to 189,920.
Meanwhile the numbers of teaching assistants working in all schools rose by 15,000.
The National Union of Teachers said primary schools were replacing teachers with assistants to cut costs. Steve Sinnott, NUT general secretary, said: "Some schools are using classroom assistants to child-mind rather than employing a teacher. That is not acceptable."
However, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, described the NUT's claims as scare-mongering. "The variation is due to falling rolls," she said. "There is no evidence to demonstrate that there is inappropriate use of classroom assistants."
Another indication of the impact of falling pupil numbers may be the increase in qualified teachers not working in education.
The number of teachers who were not in schools in the March after they qualified was 5,100 in 2003 and 6,900 in 2004, an increase of more than a third.
Recruitment expert Professor John Howson, founder of the Oxford-based research company Education Data Systems, said it was unclear how many of these teachers were job-hunting unsuccesfully or had decided against teaching for other reasons.
"With secondary schools still looking for teachers, my bet is that most are primary teachers who couldn't find work," he said.
The vacancy rates published by the Government provide only a snap-shot of the workforce in January, so do not indicate how much turnover there is in the profession over a longer period.
But Professor Howson's research suggests staff turnover may be high. He has found that, since August, 3.25 per cent of all secondary teacher jobs, and nearly 5 per cent of those in London, had been advertised. Professor Howson said he estimated that some local authorities would see more than 10 per cent of secondary staff change jobs this year.
Government figures indicate that teachers most in-demand are those who specialise in information technology, where secondary schools had the most vacancies, while the subject with the lowest proportion of vacancies was history, followed by languages.