Figures show 3,419 students applied for places in 1996, but only 2,174 had done so by December 12 last year. Ivor Sutherland, registrar of the General Teaching Council, said: "It is the beginning of a crack in our employment situation and it is a worrying sign. It may signal a shortage in the secondary sector and we will have to be vigilant and keep an eye on it. The trend began last year but this is quite a sea change."
On the secondary side, 700 places are available at teacher education institutions and there have been 1,097 applicants, although the number may rise. At the same time last year there were 1,874 applicants.
The collapse extends across subjects. In modern languages, there are 99 applicants, against 165 last year. In business education, 41 students have applied, against 125 in 1996. Only 11 students have submitted applications to become technical education teachers. Thirty-one applied last year.
The postgraduate primary course is also affected but the reduced intake and high demand is causing recruitment planners less concern. This year there are 1,077 applicants to date for 150 places, against 1,545 in 1996.
Mr Sutherland said the issue was deeper than the introduction of tuition fees and the ending of grants. "It is the upturn in the economy. People like the big multinationals are starting to recruit graduates and there may be an image problem with the secondary sector by comparison with primary," he suggested.
Student teachers only have to pay tuition fees for three years out of five. However, Professor Douglas Weir, dean of the education faculty at Strathclyde University, has warned that the overall level of student debt will act as a deterrent to teacher recruitment.