Government plans to raise educational standards risk being blown off course by a national shortage of teachers which has plunged many inner-city schools into crisis.
An independent survey of nearly 800 primary and secondary schools, sponsored by The TES, reveals that the effects of underfunding and the profession's unpopular image are having a devastating effect on recruitment to many urban schools, with the West Midlands and Greater London among those hardest hit.
The survey, carried out by researchers at Brunel University, uncovers growing concern among headteachers about the declining number and deteriorating quality of applicants for teaching jobs. Their research reveals that nationally:
* schools have experienced difficulty filling a quarter of all secondary and a one-fifth of primary vacancies;
* nearly one in five secondary posts attracts three or fewer applicants;
* more than a third of secondary schools and one-fifth of primary schools have had to cut staffing this year to stay within budget.
The greatest problems are reported by secondary heads, who are faced with an acute and growing shortage of candidates for posts in modern languages, science, maths and design technology. Primary schools also report difficulty in appointing senior managers.
But while the shortages are widespread - with East Anglia emerging as a particular blackspot - it is the big cities, where the political concern over standards is most acute, which are experiencing the greatest difficulties. In inner London, more than two-thirds of primary and secondary schools have unfilled vacancies, with nearly half of primary schools reporting difficulty in filling posts.
The findings are certain to put further pressure on education ministers to tackle underfunding in schools and to come up with effective measures to attract enough good quality graduates.
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Educational and Employment Research at Brunel, one of the authors of the research findings, said: "The new Government is right to have education at the top of its agenda. But there is a grave danger that their hopes won't be realised if the teachers are not there in sufficient number and quality."
He warned that Government plans to introduce fees and abolish grants for undergraduates opened up the prospect of even fewer students going on to become teachers. One option, he said, would be to offer trainee wages to students going through teaching college, followed by a reduced wage for teachers while they were on probation.
Later this month the Commons education select committee will begin an inquiry into the decline in numbers going into teaching, due to report in October. Professor Smithers has been appointed as an adviser. MPs are said to be acutely concerned about what they believe is a decline in the quality of people entering teacher training and the profession. Margaret Hodge, who chairs the committee, said: "We will never im-prove standards until we solve the issue of getting enough people of appropriate quality."
The Department for Education and Employment said the TESBrunel University survey emphasised the difficulties the new administration had inherited but said ministers were determined to solve them. "We don't underestimate the enormity of the task ahead of us," a spokeswoman said.
In a Platform article in today's TES, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State, said the Government hoped to use the extra Pounds 2 billion for schools, announced in the Chancellor's July Budget, to raise standards. He said the new deal he was offering the profession would seek to improve both teaching quality and motivation.
But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned: "The Government's financial plans for next year may stave off a temporary crisis but if it persists with its policy on public sector pay, its standards stategy could be seriously undermined."
Ministers have said they want the extra money to be spent on measures to raise standards rather than on higher teachers' salaries. A NAHT survey this week showed around 1,000 schools would begin the new term without a permanent head.
* Training targets, heads shortage page 5
* News Focus, pages 10-12
* Leader page 20
* David Blunkett page 21