The research is the first systematic study to support the conventional wisdom that the best brains are found outside teaching and to reflect George Bernard Shaw's claim that 'He who can does. He who cannot teaches.'
A survey of 1,400 undergraduates by the National Commission on Education found that 27 per cent of those expecting a Third had chosen teaching as a career compared with fewer than 10 per cent of those expecting a First. It reveals big variations in the enthusiasm for teaching in different subjects. Students in modern languages and science, where there is a shortage of teachers, tend to enter the profession only as a last resort. Around a quarter of those reading English choose teaching compared with 5 per cent for engineering and technology.
A-level grades for those entering teacher-training courses have lagged behind those for students taking other university courses for at least a decade, the survey shows. Between 1986 and 1991, the latest year for which figures are available, the gap widened.
Josh Hillman, the survery's author, blamed the media and politicians for giving teaching a bad image. He said: 'Only when we get a larger influx of high-quality graduates into the profession will the status of the profession rise. Teaching is not popular amongst those for whom there is the greatest need.'
Professor Peter Mortimore, director-designate of London University's Institute of Education, said: 'The findings are not surprising given all the negative publicity in public debate about teachers and schools during the last five years.
'On the other hand, many of our students here are entering teaching after several years in another career because they believe it will give them more job satisfaction. We have some very high-quality students.'
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said teaching could be one of the most rewarding professions but high-flyers were put off by the Government's insistence on dictating to teachers everything which they could and could not do.
The study is part of the commission's two-year investigation of education and training in Britain released last year, but is being issued as a separate publication.
Mr Hillman found students rejected teaching because they felt it did not fulfil the career criteria they thought most important such as varied work or a good environment. They gave it high ratings for characteristics which they considered unimportant such as benefiting society and using the subject of their degree.
The survey found there was no shortage of students wanting to enter teaching. It was less popular than industry but more popular than any other career in the study, including accountancy, law, the civil service, retailing, social work and university lecturing. Professor Mortimore said the key question was whether those bright students who had gone into teaching during the recession because they could not find another job would leave once the economy improved.
Insights into Education and Training. Papers selected by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation National Commission on Education, to be published by Heinemann on 2 March; pounds 15.99.Reuse content