Peter Peacock has insisted that the Scottish Executive is on target to meet its commitments on extra teachers and cuts in class sizes, although officials concede that the availability of supply teachers remains tight in many areas.
The Education Minister said he was "very confident" that the teacher workforce could be increased by just over 3,000 to 53,000 and class sizes cut at key stages by 2007, despite warnings last week from secondary headteachers that the additional teachers being trained would be needed just to fill existing vacancies.
Announcing details of teacher workforce planning for 2005-06 this week, Mr Peacock said there were now 5,756 teachers in training. Almost 700 more students were enrolled this year on postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) courses - up by more than 30 per cent on last year.
The latest statistics show:
* 2,397 students on PGCE courses - up from 1,722 in 2003-04.
* 3,368 students on Bachelor of Education (BEd) courses - up from 3,334 in 2003-04.
* Of those on the BEd courses, 736 are final-year students - compared with 683 last year.
* The number of students on full-time PGCE courses next year will rise to 3,350: 1,900 for secondary and 1,450 for primary.
Vacancy figures for February last year were higher than in previous years.
On February 13, there were 790 advertised vacancies, fewer than 2 per cent of the full teaching complement, but 335 of these had been vacant for more than three months.
The highest vacancy rates were in Gaelic-medium education (8 per cent), general science (4 per cent) and modern studies (4 per cent).
Officials acknowledge that supply cover is tight, particularly in some geographical areas, but add that the Executive is encouraging local authorities to employ permanent supply teachers under more flexible job descriptions.
Speaking during a visit to meet teachers in the Borders, Mr Peacock said:
"Without our historic decision to end the link of teacher numbers to falling rolls, the number of teachers in Scotland would continue to decline. Instead teacher numbers are set to rise.
"We are now training more teachers and next year we will train even more and attract teachers from other countries. Across Scotland, we have 5,765 teachers learning the skills they need to make a difference to pupils'
He added: "In a workforce of close to 50,000 teachers, only 335 posts were vacant for more than three months - less than 1 per cent of the total workforce. I want to see that number fall and the extra teachers coming out of training will do just that.
"Pupil numbers continue to fall dramatically. This means councils are having to take tough decisions about education in their local area. But it is also an opportunity to revitalise and modernise our schools, ensuring they are all fit for the challenges of 21st century education and to get the best pupil teacher ratios we have ever had."
Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said: "By 2007, Peter Peacock may or may not be right - only time will tell whether the Executive meets its 53,000 target or not. But I am doubtful because we are still haemorrhaging too many teachers at the top end. After three years of telling the Executive that the problem was now, the problem is now and it's coming home to roost."
Mr McGregor said the projections suggested that the number of teachers required would fall by 2,014. The Executive was trying to "walk a kind of tightrope" so that schools were not left with a surplus of teachers once pupil figures fell more dramatically.
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, focused on the figure of 790 vacancies for teachers last February. "That is 790 too many. Self-evidently if there are jobs there needing to be done then it does raise questions about how the provision is being made given these gaps," Mr Smith said.
"Our education system faces real problems and all the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive can do is pat itself on the back. The claim that they are on target to meet teacher recruitment numbers is a hollow victory."
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Conservative spokesman on education, said:
"Until the issues of school discipline and teacher retention are addressed, there is little point in throwing more student teachers into the lion's den. It is little wonder schools have difficulty retaining teachers when there is an attack on a member of staff every 12 minutes in Scotland."
Fiona Hyslop, SNP shadow education minister, said: "The lack of teachers in Scottish classrooms is the ticking time bomb within our education system.
With around half of Scotland's current teachers expected to retire within 10 years we need radical action now to prevent disaster.
"The problem is that the Executive knew that they couldn't meet this pledge as soon as they made it in 2003. The SNP told the Executive at the time that even using their own figures they would have to at least double the intake of trainee teachers starting with the 2003 intake if they were ever to make a positive impact."