Bruton says strong economy to blame for teacher shortages

Teacher unions insist two-tier pay gap is causing ‘crisis’ in filling short-term absences

Steven Poole from Ballyfermot College and Minister for Education Richard Bruton at the launch of the PLC evaluation review  at  Liberties College, Dublin

Steven Poole from Ballyfermot College and Minister for Education Richard Bruton at the launch of the PLC evaluation review at Liberties College, Dublin

 

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has said the growing economy is linked to shortages of substitute teachers in schools.

School managers and principals say difficulties sourcing qualified teachers to fill in for maternity leave or other short-term absences in schools are now reaching “crisis” levels.

While teacher unions insist lower pay-scales for new entrants are to blame, Mr Bruton said higher levels of employment were a key factor.

“Substitution is a particular problem. If you have a very short-term substitution – and we have an economy with strong employment – it is harder to find someone to fill those positions,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

He said teaching remained a “brilliant career opportunity”, with a starting salary of €36,000 for new entrants. He was looking at ways of helping to ensure a bigger pool of substitute teachers was available.

The measures under consideration include extending the period a teacher on a career break may work, as well as encouraging more retired teachers to fill substitution gaps.

“The overall picture is one where we are growing rapidly the number of teachers we employ. We’ve restored guidance counselling, we’ve reduced the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level twice, so we are creating opportunities for full-time, permanent positions,” said Mr Bruton.

“There are difficulties in substitution. I recognise that, and will address the situation with stakeholders in education. It remains a very strong employment opportunity for younger people – many of whom come with a fantastic vocation to do the best for young people.”

Moving abroad

Teacher unions say lower pay scales, along with difficulties facing young teachers in securing full-time work, are leading to more teachers moving abroad or leaving the profession altogether.

They have also warned of a “collapse” in numbers applying to train as secondary teachers in particular, and say the status of teaching risks being damaged.

However, Mr Bruton said the number of graduates emerging from teacher-training course has remained relatively steady, and that some 5,000 teachers have been recruited over the past two years.

When asked if he was concerned at the drop in applications for post-primary teacher training, he said: “There is a lot of competition out there with a recovering economy, and there are a lot of different routes people can go. But we are seeing steady number of graduates coming out – 3,000 each year – that should be enough to meet our needs.”

Mr Bruton acknowledged there were “pinch points” in key subjects such as science, Irish and other languages at second level. To tackle this he was looking at measures to “make it easier” for specialists in certain areas to complete a master’s degree to become qualified to teach.

Labour market

Separately, Mr Bruton has acknowledged that Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses needed to do more to respond to skills gaps in the labour market.

A major review of the sector by the ESRI has found that while PLCs boost employment prospects and access to higher education for learners, the sector has not moved with the times to meet a major shift in the kind of jobs available.

Mr Bruton said courses would have to meet “employment relevance”tests, and demonstrate their impact through a new performance framework. He said existing staff across PLCs could be upskilled to meet these labour market shifts.

There are more than 32,000 learners enrolled on PLC courses, with costs per student estimated to be €5,200 or about €160 million a year.

Mr Bruton said he felt the sector was delivering value for money, but there was always room for improvement.

He said the numbers securing employment or progression into higher education were a strong endorsement of the PLC sector.