Recruitment targets for secondary teacher training have been cut by 13 per cent, prompting fears of a deepening staffing crisis in inner-city schools.
Ministers were accused of letting the new recruitment figures slip out in a face-saving exercise after universities failed to achieve this year's goals by a wide margin.
The Government has set the Teacher Training Agency a target of 17,210 trainees for the 19992000 intake - down 2,000 from this year.
Officials at the Department for Education and Employment say the lower target reflects "new data on wastage rates and pupil-teacher ratios". They predict the numbers dropping out of the profession early will fall over the next 10 years.
But headteachers' leaders and training providers seized on the new figures as an admission that recruitment will remain a huge problem - despite a raft of incentives announced in October and the launch this month of a Green Paper intended to make teaching a more attractive profession.
They challenged the Government to produce the figures to back up its claim of falling demand.
In response, the DFEE said they came from a complex statistical model and could not easily be extrapolated.
John Dunford of the Secondary Heads' Association accused ministers of letting the figures creep out days before Christmas. Claims they were the apolitical product of a model were "not credible".
"There is a crisis situation which is being dealt with at the highest possible level of the DFEE and TTA," he said.
"I'm absolutely amazed the targets should be reduced at a time when secondary-school teacher recruitment problems are so great. The fact they failed to meet their targets this year means they should be higher next year.
"It will particularly affect those areas where schools find it hardest to recruit already - disadvantaged schools in disadvantaged areas."
The target for primary courses - where applications, though falling, continue to exceed places - grows by 500 to 12,000. The TTA has rewarded providers with good inspection reports and addressed specific shortages with an extra 219 places in London and 58 for those courses which recruit heavily from ethnic minorities.
Secondary subjects hit hardest by the cut in the targets include PE, history, geography, music, art and RE. The target for English grows by 113 places. Modern languages is unchanged.
The crisis in maths and science is so deep that new trainees will receive a Pounds 5,000 incentive from next October. Yet 236 science training places have been cut while maths rises only marginally. With 300 would-be teachers being switched to on-the-job training, places given to universities fall by more than 800 in those two subjects alone.
The Teacher Training Agency's budget is to rise by Pounds 33.4 million or 16.5 per cent to Pounds 236m. It reflects the cost of October's measures and of a full year of tuition fees which are waived for PGCE students.
The TTA argues that current under-recruitment would cushion the blow for providers whose intakes are cut. It plans to protect those put at risk.
"If recruitment were buoyant and everybody could fill their places many times over, a cut of 2,000 places would be very difficult to adjust to," Stephen Hillier, director of communications, said.
But John Tomlinson of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers warned that more secondary training courses would go.
"There is a size below which a course is not viable, because you can't afford the staff and equipment," he said.