The crisis in teacher recruitment has moved into the once-buoyant primary sector, with new figures showing the first drop for five years in the number of graduates applying to train.
The statistics make ominous reading for the Government, which is already under pressure to find enough well-qualified teachers to reduce all infant classes to a maximum of 30.
The latest figures from the Teacher Training Agency, the quango responsible for recruitment, show a 4 per cent drop in applications for post-graduate courses in primary teacher training since last year.
There has also been a 7 per cent drop in the numbers applying for three and four-year undergraduate courses in primary training. This is the second year of decline and recruitment experts are warning it could become a trend. Evidence of a primary teacher shortage is also emerging from the actual employment figures with primary vacancies in central London rising from 1.8 to 3.6 per cent of the teaching force since 1996.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I'm very concerned indeed. Optimism about primary numbers has always been misplaced because it has been on the basis that we should allow primary class sizes to go through the roof.
"In fact we should also be reducing class sizes for junior pupils. Teachers in the seven to 19 age range feel out of it at the moment, and the Government should realise the fact." He has written to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett urging him to pay more attention to the needs of these older children.
Last year's confusion about tuition fees could be one explanation for the depression in post-graduate recruitment. Many would-be applicants did not realise that the #163;1,000 tuition fee will be waived for the post-graduate certificate in education courses (although not for the fourth year of four-year undergraduate courses).
But there are also some early indications that the drop is caused by declining interest among women in particular, for reasons which are unclear at present. This is potentially disastrous for primary teaching, which has become heavily dependent on women.
Moves towards a longer working year - in return for higher pay - could create further problems in this respect, says recruitment analyst John Howson.
He points out that teaching is also in stiffer competition, with many small and medium-sized companies deciding to take on graduates for the first time.
The crisis in secondary recruitment is already well established with applications for post-graduate mathematics courses, for example, down by almost a quarter on last year.
In total, to meet the 1998 recruitment targets 22,000 graduates need to be taken on to PGCE courses - more than the number employed by the other members of the Association of Graduate Recruiters put together.
Writing in this week's TES, David Hart says that 6,000 teachers are required to cater for the existing class sizes policy, while 24,000 junior teachers are needed to reduce key stage 2 classes.
Jane Benham, head of recruitment with the TTA, said that primary teaching remained popular. "There is a drop, but it's a smallish one and the primary courses are still heavily oversubscribed."