Buoyed by this year's rise in recruitment - the first since 1992 - ministers have announced ambitious targets to train nearly 1,000 new secondary teachers next year.
But in the primary sector, the number of places has been reduced, from 13,100 to 12,500. Ministers plan to cut the target further, to 12,100, by 2003.
The move comes barely three weeks after the Prime Minister spoke passionately of the importance of recruitment as the Government sought to make teaching "the most attractive profession in the country".
A Government spokesman said the primary targets had been reduced because primary pupil numbers are forecast to fall. A drop of 223,000 pupils, or 5 per cent, is predicted in the next five years.
The cut was immediately condemned as undermining the Government's drive to enable schools to recruit staff by passing more money directly to them.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "This is absolutely crazy. The Government knows perfectly well that class sizes at key stage 2 are far too large and it is urgin schools to use the new money from the Chancellor over the next four years to improve school staffing.
"Yet it is cutting primary recruitment targets. It's complete madness."
Professor Mike Newby, chairman of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, said: "If the Government wants to decrease class sizes in the primary sector, surely it should be thinking about recruiting more, not fewer, teachers."
The Government's own latest figures show that primary schools have more vacancies than secondary schools. In January this year, there were 1,445 unfilled primary teaching places in England and Wales, against 1,287 in the secondary sector.
Given the planned increase in secondary recruitment, ministers were able to point to an overall 0.6 per cent increase in recruitment targets for next year.
But analyst John Howson, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, described the secondary target as a mission impossible, saying the net number of trainees could fall.
The secondary figure has been raised despite ministers not achieving their sector target for six years. There was a shortfall of 2,000 recruits this year, despite the advent of pound;6,000 training salaries for postgraduates.