The government has spoken at length about its desire for schools to focus on core academic subjects. But a report published today warns that ministers are presiding over an impending teacher shortage in English, maths and science.
A recruitment crisis could hit schools because of a fall in the number of graduates applying for teacher training places, according to a report commissioned by the Pearson Think Tank. Other subjects - including geography, art and economics - are also in danger of having insufficient numbers of new teachers, the report warns.
The potential shortfall follows a period of "relative ease of recruitment", according to teacher training expert Professor John Howson, the author of the report, who analysed more than 44,000 nationally advertised vacancies placed by schools between January and May this year. New entrants to the profession traditionally filled a large number of vacancies, but current training numbers may make this unsustainable in future, especially with a spike in the birth rate, Professor Howson said.
The most recent figures, released at the end of last month, show that applications for teacher training are down by 8.8 per cent in maths, 15.9 per cent in English and 16.3 per cent in biology.
"The labour market for both headteachers and classroom teachers appears to be coming under some strain after a period of relative ease of recruitment," said the report. "There will need to be close monitoring of the situation to prevent teacher shortages emerging once the graduate labour market in general starts to recover from the economic crisis.
"Even in the primary sector . the ratio of candidates to places is less than two candidates per place. This leaves little margin for comfort if the level of applications were to fall further."
The decline in interest in teacher training may be partly due to the introduction of fees of up to pound;9,000 for the PGCE and the fact that, from this year, trainees will need at least a 2:2 degree to be eligible for a bursary. "The government needs to be aware of, and attend to, the apparent impact of tuition fees," the report said.
James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET), said teacher supply could be affected by government reforms to teacher training, including the introduction of School Direct, through which heads recruit their own trainees.
UCET members are also concerned about a "lack of stability" caused by government plans to only give universities with outstanding Ofsted ratings guaranteed allocations of teacher training places, fearing that this will also hit teacher supply. "That's the perfect storm that I'm most worried about," Mr Noble Rogers said.
As part of the research, 360 school leaders also completed an online survey about the teacher labour market. The situation in London was positive, with most heads reporting that it had been as easy to recruit this year as it was last year. But almost a third of schools in the regions surrounding the capital said that it had become more difficult to hire staff.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there had been a period of significant change, including the abolition of the Training and Development Agency for Schools, alterations to bursaries and the introduction of new, school-based teacher training.
"We are looking forward to meeting with the new chief executive of the Teaching Agency, Charlie Taylor, to discuss all these issues about supply and training reform," Mr Lightman said. "All school leaders have great ambitions for the education system. In order to achieve this we need to recruit well in all areas."
Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said she was worried about the supply of primary school teachers. "The changing demographic is real and children will suffer if there are shortages of teachers in particular areas," she said.
A Department for Education spokesman denied there was a crisis. "The number of recruits to initial teacher training has actually risen this year," he said. "We are attracting outstanding graduates into the profession by offering attractive financial incentives and we are creating more opportunities for teachers to train as specialists in core subjects."