Flight of the teachers could leave Irish schools short

Recruitment firms are luring teachers abroad with higher wages, as pupil numbers here grow and many Irish schools struggle to find substitutes

Teachers are being preyed on. The predator? Overseas teacher recruitment firms, luring them abroad with offers of better money and the chance to work in the Middle East or the UK.

That’s according to a student on Galway-Mayo IT’s design graphics and construction education course, which trains teachers for woodwork and related subjects. He says recruiters arrive at their college on a regular basis and “aggressively market” overseas teaching jobs. And they are proving successful.

The exodus of newly qualified teachers may be symptomatic of wider problems in the education system, but it comes at the worst possible time for school principals.

Primary schools are struggling to find enough substitutes to cover teacher absences. Postprimary schools don’t have enough Irish, science, language or home economics teachers – although some areas, such as business studies, are oversupplied.

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And because Ireland has the youngest population and the highest fertility rate in the EU, the number of children in schools will continue to rise.

The simple economics of supply and demand are kicking in: if we want to ensure we have enough teachers – and keep class sizes at a workable level – the next government will have to make teaching a more enticing career.

This is foremost in the minds of the teacher unions as they meet for their annual conferences this week. Pay rises are already on the agenda. So what are the push-pull factors for teachers to work abroad, and what are we doing to keep them here?

Secure employment

Tomás Ó Ruairc is director of the Teaching Council, which regulates the teaching profession and is tasked with advising the minister for education on teacher supply.

He says the extension of the initial teacher-education programmes from three to four years, and from one to two years for postgraduate programmes, has led to a dip in the supply of teachers, and the status of the profession and the prospects of secure employment are other factors.

He identifies a number of broad factors that affect demand for teachers: “The school-going population of children is increasing; pupil-teacher ratios and government decisions to increase the number of teachers in specific areas; the numbers retiring or leaving the profession; and career breaks, illnesses and secondment.”

Ó Ruairc adds that the location of a school can also significantly influence the availability of teachers, and national statistics do not always reflect localised situations.

The problem is made all the more acute by the absence of key data about demand for teachers in the Irish school system. Although the Department of Education keeps a firm eye on projected pupil numbers, there is no credible information on just how many teachers are going abroad, or why.

For this reason a working group is compiling a report about supply and demand of teachers for the Teaching Council. It’s expected to be among the reading material facing the new minister’s packed agenda.

Pull factors

Sean Rowland is founder and president of Hibernia College, which is now the largest supplier of newly qualified primary and postprimary teachers in the State. He says there will always be factors pulling teachers out of Ireland.

“We’re a small island country and we have a desire to travel and see the world. It’s a good time when you’re finished college.”

He says there are very few primary teachers out of work, even if they don’t have the ideal job in the right location. Some postprimary subjects have an oversupply of teachers; some are undersupplied.

“There are a natural cohort who want to be teachers, and it is a very good job in the sense that, once permanent, it is a secure career in an otherwise volatile working world. In Ireland we have a really strong cohort of teachers compared to other countries.”

In this respect we might be a victim of our own success: well-trained, English- speaking graduate teachers from Ireland are ideal for other countries suffering their own teacher shortages.

“We are coming across a lot of couples looking to make the move where one or both are teachers and looking to save up for a deposit on a mortgage which they are finding impossible to get here,” says Garrett O’Dowd, director of teacher recruitment agency Teach and Explore, which has recruited more than 300 teachers to international and public schools in the United Arab Emirates alone, with a further 100 set to go over in August. They also have schools hiring in China, Kuwait and Qatar.

The growth of international schools is being fuelled by a growing middle class in Asia and the Middle East who want their children educated in English.

Some of these schools offer tax-free salaries, free accommodation in furnished apartments, free healthcare and flights, international experience and, crucially, a permanent job. Many are private operations.

“Living in these apartments with good money is a far cry from a small apartment with a Pot Noodle dinner,” O’Dowd says. “But I hope that Ireland doesn’t make the same mistake as it did in health and that it is not crying out for teachers in years to come.”

THE DILEMMA: TO STAY OR LEAVE
In 2014, a report commissioned by the Department of Education from senior counsel Peter Ward said that "it is broadly accepted that matters have now reached a point where there is a danger that the teaching profession will be downgraded . . . The lack of full-time, secure positions operates as a significant disincentive to those considering entering the profession. There has been a loss of morale in the sector."

Gemma Tuffy, a spokeswoman for the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, says that since 2008 the number of teachers on temporary hours has risen from 27 to 35 per cent.

Many of these teachers are also on part-time hours. More than half of all teachers under 30 are on contracts of a year or less. These are the teachers who have witnessed years of cutbacks in education.

One festering sore for newly qualified teachers is that they are on different pay to colleagues who are doing the same job, just because they graduated a year or two later; the resentment might drive them abroad.

Those might seem like good reasons to leave, but there’s more than one good reason to stay. What are they?

“On the upside, student numbers are on the increase, so more teachers will be appointed in coming years,” says Tuffy. “Last year’s budget announced 550 additional teachers [in addition to teachers being appointed due to demographics]. These are primarily being used by schools to augment guidance-counselling services and, in the case of some small schools, school management.

“And, since September 2015, teachers who have completed two years as a temporary teacher may be eligible for a contract of indefinite duration [equivalent to a permanent contract, but not necessarily on full hours].”

This all amounts to good news for the majority of graduates who, whatever is on offer abroad, ultimately don’t want to emigrate.

NIGEL O'MAHONY (30)
Why I stayed: 'Japan had no work-life balance'

"I went to Japan after college, where I taught English for three years. I love travelling – I've been to 33 countries – so it was a good chance to see the world while I was still young.

“Teaching English made me realise that I was interested in teaching as a career, and ultimately I chose to train as a primary teacher. I came home and I started my training in Hibernia College last year.

“People ask why I came back. Japan has such long working weeks, whereas the teachers here have a healthier balance than in some other countries.

“What can we do to keep teachers here? I don’t think teachers get into it for the money; my undergrad is in commerce, and when I left could have earned a lot more in marketing, but I didn’t want to spend my day at a computer screen. I left that because of the rewards of teaching and the intrinsic benefits; as long as the curriculum is interesting, there will always be people who want to work with kids.

“I loved teaching in Japan, but teachers there were putting in 70 or 80 hours a week; there was no consideration of work-life balance. And this is where my family and friends are.”

PATRICK HALLIGAN (28)
Why I left
: 'At home I'd be paid a lot less'
"I couldn't get a job in Ireland so I looked to the UK. I've been teaching in a London boys' school for five years. Here I'm head of geography; at home there are no middle-management posts. Here I get annual salary rises; at home I'd be paid a lot less. I like this school and enjoy my job.

“I’ve bought a house and have made a life for myself here. Still, I’d like to come home eventually, maybe within the next five years. I’ll be coming home to a smaller wage. On the plus side, the holidays at home are longer; here, it doesn’t break for the summer until mid-July. And, of course, I could get back into coaching GAA, which I can’t do here.”