Returning emigrant teachers facing ‘Kafkaesque’ bureaucracy in Ireland

There is a crisis in teacher supply in key subjects – but securing regular hours and well-paid work can still be daunting

Many Irish teachers based abroad are wondering whether now is a good time to come home given a shortage of qualified staff in key areas. Photo: iStock

Many Irish teachers based abroad are wondering whether now is a good time to come home given a shortage of qualified staff in key areas. Photo: iStock

 

Ireland is in the midst of a chronic teacher crisis. Substitutes are the most valuable commodity a school can get, and the number of newly-qualified teachers emigrating for better pay and conditions continues to impact on supply.

Many teachers – as well as the unions that represent them – say not enough is being done to stem the tide.

Perhaps worse, however, is that those who do return to Ireland say they are facing myriad obstacles.

Chief among their concerns is the difficulty in securing permanent work, two-tier payscales which sees teachers appointed after 2011 placed on a lower pay scales than their colleagues and, they say, excessive and confusing bureaucracy – especially from the Teaching Council.

We spoke to over a dozen teachers who had or are currently working outside of Ireland and asked them about the difficulties they have faced attempting to move back here to work. Some did their training in Ireland while a smaller number had trained in the UK or Australia.

Getting work

Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary with the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, says teachers who return to Ireland are having difficulty obtaining permanent, full-time posts – and this is despite the availability of a contract of indefinite duration after two years.

Amanda, who asked that her surname not be used, has only been able to get subbing work since returning from a well-paid job in Dubai.

She has had trouble getting her UK postgrad qualification recognised, and says she has experienced physical assault from pupils in the secondary school at which she teaches here.

Because of the date on which she started in a particular school, she is denied benefits such as maternity leave until next year.

“I’m considering getting out of teaching altogether,” she says. “I know of teachers who are in their late 30s and spend nine years working before being made permanent. It’s so disheartening.”

Elaine, returned from Chile: 'Schools wanted newly-qualified teachers and didn’t see the benefit of my international experience.'
Elaine, returned from Chile: 'Schools wanted newly-qualified teachers and didn’t see the benefit of my international experience.'

Elaine faced similar problems when she returned to Ireland after six years of teaching in Chile. She was drawn home by family, rather than work.

“I thought my six years teaching experience would be of benefit when applying for permanent jobs, but I found schools wanted newly-qualified teachers and didn’t see the benefit of my international experience.”

John MacGabhann, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland, says this is a not a problem of the Government’s making. He lays the blame firmly at the door of school managers.

“We negotiated a letter with the Department of Education making it clear schools can appoint on a permanent basis for whole-time or part-time hours, but schools have fallen out of the habit of making permanent appointments,” he says.

“School managers – who were, in the vast majority of cases, the beneficiaries of permanent appointments – want to take a look at the new teachers one year and then again the following year.

‘Kafkaesque’ bureaucracy

Paul Grundy, who is UK qualified, has spent more than 20 years teaching and managing across Europe, the Middle and Far East.

“The country next door to where I qualified has by far the most cumbersome and myopic bureaucracy I’ve ever encountered,” he says.

“Because of my qualifications and experience I’m a square peg trying to fit into the Teaching Council’s round hole . . . it is a creation Kafka would have been proud of.”

Cat O’Sullivan, a teacher who qualified in the UK in 2009, spent seven years teaching in the UAE before returning to Ireland in June last year. She submitted her application for registration in late May and it came through in early November. Several other teachers voiced similar criticism.

But another teacher, who is permanent in Australia, says the criticism is unfair. “When I first arrived in Australia I found the red tape and the hoops I had to jump through to become registered here were painful to say the least,” the teacher says.

“And don’t even get me started on visas. There’s a process in every country and everything takes time.”

A spokesperson for the Teaching Council says the process for assessment for out-of-state qualifications for teaching is designed to ensure all teachers on the register in Ireland meet the same standards.

Once all documents have been received by the council, it says qualifications assessment applications are processed within a 12-week timeframe.

“Teachers have expressed frustration at the process, particularly in terms of the extent of the requirements to be met . . .” the spokesman says.

“We are reviewing our requirements and procedures, including subject criteria, to identify ways in which they may be streamlined to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible, while maintaining standards.”

Charges

Teachers who return to Ireland may also need to be Garda-vetted, and this can require them to get clearance forms from the country they previously taught in.

One teacher says she was required to get certified Australian police clearance, which had to be posted from Australia; the Teaching Council never received it. Applications for incremental credit need to be sent by post from the overseas school to the Department of Education but can often go missing en route.

Other teachers point out that they are obliged to pay a €1,500 fee to sit an exam that assesses their competency in Irish and say that, while they understand the need to be tested, the fee is too high on top of having to pay €1,800 to attend the Gaeltacht for three weeks.

One teacher who spoke at The Irish Times “Returning to Ireland” event last summer said these fees are “a huge barrier for teachers coming back”.

“I don’t mind paying to go the Gaeltacht, as it’s great to hear the language from native speakers and therefore some oral language improvement for teachers,” says another. “What I disagree with is the huge fee – why so much?”

Rachel Diver took a career break from teaching in Ireland and move to Australia where, she says, pay and conditions are better
Rachel Diver took a career break from teaching in Ireland and move to Australia where, she says, pay and conditions are better

Pay and conditions

Rachel Diver took a career break from Ireland and decided to stay in Australia where, she says, pay and conditions are better. She maintains her Irish registration. “But wages wise, teaching has gone so far down the scale. It pays much more in Australia and all I had to do was get a letter from the department of education in Athlone to acknowledge the years I spent teaching in Ireland, and they placed me further up the pay scale.

“There [is] no shortage of jobs here, and great flexibility and working conditions to suit your life.”

One teacher, Daire Ni Dhubhda, says the pay in Ireland can’t compete with overseas and that promotional opportunities within the profession remain extremely limited following a freeze on appointing people to middle management posts during the recession.

She returned to Ireland briefly but the lure of abroad combined with lower pay and limited chance for progression led her to leave again. She currently has no plans to come home.

Daire Ni Dhubhda, a teacher, returned to Ireland but says lower pay and limited chances for progression led her to leave again
Daire Ni Dhubhda, a teacher, returned to Ireland but says lower pay and limited chances for progression led her to leave again

The Department of Education’s problem isn’t easy to resolve; to some extent, this is because the system which trains Ireland’s highly-educated teachers has become a victim of its own success as teaching becomes – like architecture, banking and nursing – a mobile and international profession with opportunities for travel.

Minister Richard Bruton has established a teacher supply group, which examining a range of these issues, while new entrant pay is at the centre of fresh talks with unions.

Ireland, though, cannot compete with the tax-free salaries on offer to teachers in the Middle East and elsewhere, so we need to make it more attractive for teachers to come home, says MacGabhann. This, he argues, starts with better pay and conditions as well as making the bureaucratic process easier.

Teacher supply: in numbers:

5,000: The number of teachers hired in the past two years

416,000: Our second level school population is set to reach this record high in 2026

20%: Number of substitute second level teaching posts filled by unqualified teachers, according to Association of Community and Comprehensive Secondary Schools