Applications for one-year postgraduate physics teacher-training courses have fallen by more than half - down to 181 from 440 at the same time two years ago. So far this year there have been just 95 acceptances for physics, according to figures from teacher-training departments and colleges.
Trainers blame the drop mainly on decreasing numbers of mature applicants. During the recession, both maths and science courses have relied on older graduates made redundant from jobs in industry and the City. Physics, in particular, has had a steady stream of applicants from engineering companies which have laid off employees. The improvement in the economy has ended the queue of unemployed physicists looking for a career change.
Applications for the two subjects have fallen for the last three years, but the drop is particularly alarming this year. In maths they are down from 1,001 at this time last year to 742. Universities and colleges need to recruit 1,700 students to fill all their departmental places. Maths graduates, say teacher trainers, are very much in demand as the economy improves. And teachers' salaries compared with those of other professions have fallen.
There is no separate target for physics but the overall target for science is 2,707. So far there are just over 900 acceptances for all such courses. Applications and acceptances are down for chemistry, and also for biology.
Although some of the shortfall will be made up as students' other options fall through, experience suggests that about 20 per cent of maths places will be unfilled. In science, the shortfall may be less but only because the Government has reduced the target for science places.
Mary Russell, secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, said: "The situation in science is getting pretty desperate. We should expect to have many more applications by this stage.
"Whenever a recession ends, science and maths are the first areas to feel the effects. Graduates decide they won't go into teaching because other things are better paid and less hassle."
Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, said that the difficulty in attracting physics teachers was part of the wider problem of recruiting enough people to physics degree courses.
Teaching was often a second-choice career for physicists, he suggested, and should be made more attractive. Government bursaries in science subjects had not really succeeded in attracting more applicants.
He proposed regular sabbaticals in university science departments: "The real joy of science is being at the frontier of your subject. Someone honed up to a high level of understanding of physics finds they are continually giving out in teaching and becoming further and further away from their subject."
Another option would be for university science departments to include some teacher training in their four-year physics and chemistry courses.
A spokeswoman for the Institute of Physics said: "We don't have enough enthusiastic physics teachers in the school system to persuade people to take up physics at A-level. Some schools have no specialist physics teacher."
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