If there was ever any doubt about the scale of the teacher shortage problem, then internal communications between principals and the Department of Education released to The Irish Times show in stark terms the challenges facing schools.
School leaders tell of high rents making life unaffordable for many teachers; the struggles in attracting applicants for vacant teaching posts despite repeated advertisements; the use of unqualified staff to fill gaps since last September; and how crucial support is being taken away from vulnerable pupils.
“I have been a primary school principal since 1998 and I have never seen such a dearth of applicants. Many of our staff resigned this year, with a heavy heart due to the cost of living in Dublin and the lack of accommodation,” said one principal. “I will have no one left in SET [special education] by the end of this month and two classes will be without teachers by Christmas. This is a crisis like no other.”
One school leader wrote: “I REALLY need help!!! I am two permanent teachers short and I have had no applications. I have two Hibernia students who can sub, but they cannot take temporary contracts as they have other employment. Can I please have subbing days to cover these people until I appoint someone? Staff are exhausted, and children aren’t getting their entitlements.”
Another added: “It is soul-destroying that there are clerical issues that are standing in the way of some form of respite for these children… I am writing to you as a school principal who is begging on behalf of the most vulnerable children in her school that you look at this issue immediately…”
The urgency of the problem is not in doubt – but the question of how to solve it is.
Minister for Education Norma Foley has pointed to a host of initiatives aimed at boosting teacher supply such as easing employment restrictions for teachers on career breaks, job shares or those who are retired. Despite these measures, schools say they continue to experience serious difficulties in recruiting suitably qualified staff.
I will have no one left in special education by the end of this month and two classes will be without teachers by Christmas. This is a crisis like no other
So what measures are open to the Government? Could they work? And are they feasible? We’ve looked at some of the proposals aired by principals, teachers and parents.
1. More permanent contracts
At second level, many newly-qualified teachers are often employed on part-time hours rather than full-time, permanent contracts. Many cannot afford to make ends meet and either emigrate, leave the profession or move to parts of the country where the cost of living is cheaper.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), for example, is calling for teachers to be employed on permanent contracts of full hours upon initial appointment to alleviate the crisis.
It points to a recent survey of its membership which showed that 65 per cent of teachers appointed after 2011 did not get a contract of full hours upon initial appointment.
The Department of Education, however, will be wary of creating too many permanent posts if teaching hours are not there to justify them. Demographics are also due to decline at second level from 2024 onwards.
It points to a related scheme which allows teachers work additional hours in their subject area over the usual 22-hour weekly limit, up to a maximum of 20 additional hours – though it is difficult to say how much this is being availed of so far.
2. Cut the cost of teacher education
The extension by an additional year of the teacher education programme to master’s level back in 2015 has doubled the cost of securing the qualification to about €12,000-€15,000.
It means that for some students, studying to become a teacher is more expensive than becoming a doctor – and it takes almost as long to qualify.
This has prompted calls recently to either cut the duration of the programme, reduce tuition fees or allow student teachers earlier access to the classroom.
For some students, studying to become a teacher is more expensive than becoming a doctor – and it takes almost as long to qualify
Reducing the qualifying time seems unlikely, given the extensive work involved in designing teachers’ qualifications and protecting the quality of education. For those who want to qualify faster, there are options of shorter – or concurrent – four-year undergraduate courses at primary and second level.
Cutting the cost is likely to be more feasible option. As Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shúilleabháin and Dr Thomas Delahunty have suggested, funded scholarships to incentivise top candidates into teaching are common in some other jurisdictions – such as Finland and Norway – which could be supported by public or private industry.
3. Source teachers from abroad
Can we attract more teachers back from the Middle East and elsewhere? Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, for example, has suggested offering more permanent posts or long-term contracts to encourage teachers who return at Christmas to stay here.
While it seems unlikely that many teachers would drop everything to return home at such short notice, teachers abroad are without doubt a potential source of additional staff in the medium term. Many have said they could be persuaded home if they could be assured of full-time hours or permanent posts.
In addition, there are many teachers who have qualified abroad – both Irish and non-Irish – who would like to teach in Ireland but face a range of administrative and bureaucratic hurdles. Many, especially, express frustration with challenges getting Teaching Council registration.
Fast-tracking registration for these highly qualified and experienced teachers – in much the same way as was done for Ukrainian teachers – would doubtless help boost numbers in the classroom.
4. Allow student teachers earlier access to school placements
This is probably the most promising pipeline of additional teacher supply, especially in the short term at primary level.
There are a few thousand students currently engaged in initial teacher education programmes, either in undergraduate or postgraduate courses.
Principals have called for student teachers to be given earlier access to the classroom to alleviate pressure, or for courses and exams to be rescheduled to facilitate this. Similar measures took place during the Covid pandemic.
Recent changes mean an additional cohort of student teachers will be available soon: third- and fourth-year student teachers in undergraduate programmes can now register with the Teaching Council; more than 2,100 student teachers have so far applied to do so. Once registered, these student teachers can be employed by a school to cover substitutable vacancies.
In addition, about 800 second-year Hibernia College professional master of education students have completed their latest school placement block and are available to the school system until Christmas. All in all, these students are likely to play a crucial role in covering absences for the remainder of the academic year.
5. Restore posts of responsibility
Cuts to middle-management structures and posts of responsibility – initially imposed in 2009 – have still not been fully restored. Teachers’ unions argue this is crucial to boost promotional prospects and retention of staff, especially in the face of a cost-of-living crisis.
The department says that since the lifting of a moratorium in 2017, thousands of posts of responsibility have been restored. Today, about one-third of teachers in the school system hold these middle-management positions.
While the department annually revises the allocation of these posts to take into account retirements during the school year, it likely sees any more substantial restoration as a matter for the next public sector pay deal.
6. Dublin allowance
The idea of a Dublin allowance for essential workers has been floated as one way to help compensate for higher rents and living costs in the capital. A similar measure has been used in London for many years
The Coolmine Community School Action Group, a group of parents alarmed at the loss of key subjects at their second-level school in west Dublin, has asked members of the Government to examine it as a possibility.
Norma Foley’s response to date is that the starting salary for teachers on full-time hours is now close to €40,000, which is more than the salary paid to teachers in London.
At Government level, there are very mixed feelings about such a measure. The question of where an allowance would be applied – Dublin, or all big urban areas? – would be contentious. In addition, such a measure could not be ring-fenced for teachers and would have to apply to other public servants. This would make it very expensive to implement.
7. Attract new students to teaching
Getting the numbers into initial teacher education courses doesn’t seem to be our biggest problem – but there is no guarantee that teaching will remain an attractive profession into the future.
For example, CAO application numbers for primary teaching fell by 4.5 per cent this year, although they increased at second level by 9.5 per cent (possibly linked to awareness over demographic trends which will show pupil numbers climbing at second level and falling at primary).
Unions argue that a combination of more full-time contracts, promotional opportunities and competitive salaries is key to maintaining the status of teaching; the department argues that it is making progress on these fronts, in additional to a “Teaching transforms” marketing campaign aimed at school-leavers.