The government's plans to revolutionise computer science in schools are in jeopardy after a "collapse" in the number of applications to teacher training courses, experts have warned.
Graduates are shunning courses designed to prepare teachers for a new curriculum backed by technology giants including Facebook, Microsoft and IBM, figures reveal, despite scholarships of pound;20,000 for the best recruits.
The number of people applying for computer science PGCEs in England is down by a third compared with applications for the old ICT course at the same time last year. The number of applicants last year was itself down by more than 50 per cent on 2011, which suggests a continuing crisis in recruitment.
The falls follow a period of uncertainty about the future of the subject in secondary schools. Education secretary Michael Gove announced in January last year that the "demotivating and dull" ICT curriculum would be scrapped ahead of the introduction of a new qualification in computer science. Although Mr Gove promoted the importance of computer science at the time, he did not include it in the English Baccalaureate performance measure. That decision was reversed last month.
Internet pioneers, including Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the world wide web, have called for better computer science teaching in Britain's schools.
The Department for Education has said that recruiting "outstanding new teachers in this vital subject" is a priority to "ensure Britain competes and thrives in the global race". But the BCS, the chartered institute for IT, which has been integral to establishing the new teacher training scholarships, is concerned about the lack of interest in courses starting this September.
"There has been an almost instantaneous switch from ICT to computer science; this is fantastic and we are very supportive," Bill Mitchell, director of the BCS Academy of Computing, said. "But there is a gap, a shortfall in recruitment to PGCE courses this year, which is serious.
"I am starting to feel nervous that we might have two years in which we won't have sufficient people going into the workforce.
"There have been so many mixed messages. that people are now confused about what is going on. A lot of people thought ICT was being scrapped and that meant computing wouldn't be taught in schools. That is wrong," Dr Mitchell added. "We've got to do all we can to get our message across. The current situation is frustrating because there is going to be a massive demand for computer science specialist teachers in the coming years."
Just 125 people had by the end of January applied for more than 800 places on courses starting this year, the latest official figures show. Staff from the Teaching Agency, the body responsible for teacher training, met with the BCS yesterday to discuss the situation.
Dr Mitchell said that even if all the training places are filled, it will still be a significant task to improve the subject knowledge of teachers in all schools to prepare them for the new curriculum, due to be introduced next year. The draft primary curriculum, published earlier this month, said children should learn basic coding before they start secondary school.
Helen Boulton, who will run the computer science PGCE at Nottingham Trent University, said applications are "significantly down". "The challenge now is to fill the places and fill them with the best people," she said. "It is important we recruit but so far it is very slow."
Kevin Mattinson, pro vice-chancellor and head of teacher education at Keele University, said he has "real concerns" about recruitment. "This is an ongoing collapse from last year," he said.
Mr Mattinson added that the situation had been worsened by delays in allocating places for subject knowledge enhancement courses, which can give trainees a way to get on to courses if they do not have up-to-date or relevant qualifications.
Members of the Association for Information Technology in Teacher Education want the Teaching Agency to launch a marketing campaign for computer science PGCEs.
"Potentially there is now a bigger demand for computer science teachers," Kate Watson, the organisation's chair, said. "Schools will be looking for them. If we are not producing them then I'm not sure where they will come from."
A DfE spokeswoman said: "Computer science places for 2013-14 have been allocated in response to providers' capacity to run new postgraduate computer science courses and to meet schools' demand for School Direct places in the subject."
- 459 - Applications for IT PGCEs in England, Wales and Scotland, January 2011.
- 218 - Applications for IT PGCEs in England, Wales and Scotland, January 2012.
- 189 - Applications for ICT PGCEs in England, January 2012.
- 125 - Applications for computer science PGCEs in England, January 2013.