They warned that graduates with good honours degrees were shunning schools in favour of better salaries elsewhere, and said headteachers were being forced to employ second-best candidates rather than leave vacancies unfilled.
The National Association of Head Teachers said there was "a dire" shortage of people entering teacher training and a severe lack of candidates coming forward for headteacher posts. NAHT general secretary, David Hart, warned that the crisis threatened to undermine the government's efforts to raise standards.
Speaking at the start of the NAHT conference in Eastbourne, East Sussex, Mr Hart yesterday proposed giving teachers an element of performance-related pay to encourage graduate recruitment.
He said: "Urgent action has to be taken. We need a modern pay structure to attract good honest graduates into the profession. They won't be put off by a performance element in the system. It won't be crude. I'm not in favour of performance-related pay; I'm in favour of paying good teachers, good salaries."
Mr Hart said the recruitment crisis would only worsen as the economy improved and graduates had greater career choices. "It's deeply worrying because unless we can recruit good honours graduates into the profession, we will be asking schools to fight the good fight over standards with one arm tied behind their backs," he said.
Figures produced for the union by leading education analyst John Howson suggested that only 10,300 teachers would come into the profession this year, nearly 5,000 less than needed in schools. He predicted major shortfalls in virtually all subjects.
The latest figures already show large falls in the number of graduates entering teacher training in almost all subjects. Entrance to maths courses were down by 26 per cent, the largest fall, while the number of entrants specialising in science fell by 21 per cent.
Recruitment of primary school teachers exceeded targets, but heads warned that the targets had been set too low. Statistics compiled by the union show one-quarter of primary headships were unfilled in the Home Counties; in London the figure is 43 per cent.
Mr Hart said the situation was, "a timebomb ticking under the government", despite its high profile attempts to promote teaching as a career. A television, cinema and billboard campaign was launched earlier this year under the slogan "Nobody forgets a good teacher".
Headteachers at the conference complained that it was increasingly difficult to attract staff for jobs and warned that many schools were surviving on supply cover alone.
Neil Thornley, head of Fearns High School in Lancashire, said he had spent a year trying to recruit a deputy head of maths. He said: "All we were looking for was someone who had done four years of teaching. It took us 12 months to appoint and our final long list was only nine people." He said that only one of the applicants had an honours degree in maths."
Mike Russell, head of Edward Redhead Junior School in Waltham Forest, east London, said: "We are looking at people putting themselves forward with limited experience and limited practice."
He said teacher numbers hid the real situation in schools. "We don't look to see how many of them are supply teachers from Australia, spending a term in a school on their way round the world."
Mick Brookes, head of Sherwood Junior School in Nottingham, added: "If a school is faced with having a class of children without a teacher in front of it and having a candidate who is not such a good candidate, they are going to go for that person."
t All schools are to be sent guidelines on how to deal with paedophiles who move into the area, headteachers said yesterday. Under new procedures agreed between heads and chief constables, police will inform schools if dangerous sex offenders move into the neighbourhood and advise teachers how to react and whether to inform parents.
The guidelines are a response to a series of high-profile incidents. David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "The guidelines would protect heads and help schools best respond to the problem."Reuse content