The number of graduates due to start training as secondary teachers in September has fallen in all subjects with the sole exception of physical education, according to the latest figures from the Teacher Training Agency.
The decline is most acute in maths and sciences and will increase anxiety about the ever-decreasing pool of graduates in the technical subjects.
University and college admissions tutors say the situation is being exacerbated by confusion over whether the Government intends to exempt trainee teachers from paying tuition fees. Some courses have seen "small surges" over the past few weeks because of applications from students hoping to escape fees, while other admissions tutors say that the prospect of tuition fees coupled with a fourth year of debt is deterring prospective teachers altogether.
The Department for Education and Employment would only say that "various options are under consideration." These seem to be bursaries, total exemption, or salaried training.
Surprisingly, traditionally oversubscribed subjects such as English have also seen a drop in applications. There are now only about 1.25 applicants for every training place in English, a situation with which few graduate recruiters in other areas would be happy, as choice is severely restricted as a result. English, according to a TTA spokesman, is "becoming dangerously close to being a subject at risk".
The most recent figures describe the situation on August 16, compared with August 17 last year. In maths, there were 1,433 applications, compared with 1,697 last year, a drop of 264. In sciences, 2,988 trainees have been provisionally recruited, compared to 3,444 last year, and modern foreign languages and English have both seen drops in recruitment. When term starts in three weeks' time, the recruitment picture is likely to be bleaker still as some students will fail to turn up and others will drop out early on.
Recruitment to primary post-graduate courses remains very buoyant, however, suggesting that it is not teaching per se that is putting graduates off but a combination of bad publicity about conditions in secondary schools and increasing competition for good graduates in a healthier economy.
The Government's minimum target for maths trainees (1,691) has not been met; other subjects may just scrape through.
At Manchester Metropolitan University, Ian Kane, head of the education department, said that the situation for maths was "a disaster zone", with both PGCE and two-year conversion courses seriously short of students. Music applications are also well below target. In science, he says the department will meet its target, but only because biology is oversubscribed. He only has 6 physicists and 17 chemists. This imbalance is repeated in foreign languages, where he reports a serious shortfall in German.
"Like all institutions, we are on the horns of a dilemma. If we fail to recruit enough students, the TTA will claw back money and the course could close, while if we lower our standards we compromise on quality and the instituition suffers too." He said that there had been a "small surge" in applicants after the Government's announcement that students would have to contribute Pounds 1,000 to university tuition fees.
Even at the London Institute of Education, traditionally regarded as the Oxbridge of teacher training, several subjects are affected. Targets are unlikely to be met in maths, science, modern languages or geography, said Carol Macaskill, head of administration.
She also said that applications for English were down by 15 per cent, although the target will easily be met. Both the Institute and Manchester Metropolitan were anxious about the pressure to compromise on quality when recruiting students.