Primary school principals have warned that classes could end up being “sent home” due to an acute shortage of teachers.
Páiric Clerkin, chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN), said a survey of members found that more than 80 per cent of school leaders are struggling to plug staffing gaps by redeploying their special education teachers to mainstream classes.
While there have been initiatives aimed at boosting the supply of substitutes and teachers, he said the reality on the ground was that “teachers are not there at the moment” and long-term teaching posts are going unfilled across many schools.
In some cases, he said, newly created teacher supply panels – aimed at ensuring schools have easy access to substitutes at short notice – are empty.
Speaking at the IPPN’s annual conference in Killarney, Minister for Education Norma Foley acknowledged that there are “difficulties and challenges” sourcing teachers, particularly in urban centres, due to the housing crisis.
However, she said there were similar challenges facing other sectors such as healthcare, hospitality and retail.
Some recent advancements in the education sector – such as lowering the pupil-teacher ratio in schools to a “historic low” – may also have been a contributory factor to staffing shortages.
Ms Foley said she has taken a number of initiatives to boost teacher supply such as allowing job sharing teachers to be employed to work in a substitute capacity during when they are rostered off duty and suspending limits on substitution work for teachers on career breaks.
In addition, she said there were more than 1,850 newly qualified primary teachers this year, while Sub Seeker, a substitute teacher recruitment portal, has approximately 12,000 teachers now registered.
Her comment on this point resulted in audible disapproval from principals in the audience, many of whom say they face difficulties sourcing substitutes.
A recent IPPN survey of school principals found that 87 per cent of respondents had difficulties sourcing teachers for short-term cover.
In response, Mr Clerkin said that while it was positive that there were 12,000 substitutes registered in the past, the reality was many have since secured teaching posts and substitutes “are not there at the moment”.
“We have long-term positions that are unfilled. When you have that, it is the worst ... no one in this room wants to be the person ringing home to say, ‘sorry, we’ve to send a class home’.”
Mr Clerkin said, to loud applause, that money being saved by the State due to the lack of substitution cover should be reinvested in innovative schemes to ensure vulnerable children do not lose out due to the redeployment of special education teachers.
When asked by reporters if she would consider re-establishing a “banked hours” initiative, to provide a catch-up service for children with special needs Ms Foley said: “We are not looking at it, at this point.”
This option, she said, meant children were missing out, so she said her department’s focus was on “broader” measures which will be explored in conjunction with education partners.
The IPPN’s annual conference heard that staff shortages have reached a “critical” point in Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare.
More than a quarter of all schools who responded to a recent survey by the network said they did not have their full staffing quota, while many positions on supply panels of substitute teachers are lying vacant.
The conference also heard concerns over a “wave of mental health” issues among children, many of whom are waiting for access to specialist support.