Home economics college struggling to keep up with demand

High numbers enrolling at the State’s only such college placing strain on available space

Home economics students Nicola Murphy, Eimear Lacey and Louise Brennan making pasta at St Angela’s College, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Home economics students Nicola Murphy, Eimear Lacey and Louise Brennan making pasta at St Angela’s College, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

 

Ireland’s only home economics college is struggling to cope with rising numbers of students choosing to train as teachers in the subject.

A national shortage of teachers in the discipline and an increasingly health-conscious population is making the field more attractive than ever, lecturers believe.

Last year numbers enrolling at St Angela’s College in Co Sligo increased almost 20 per cent, from 85 to 101. In September the intake will rise again another 10 per cent.

Local Fine Gael TD Tony McLoughlin has called on party colleague and Minister for Education Richard Bruton to free up funding for more buildings at the NUI Galway-affiliated campus overlooking Lough Gill.

Mr McLoughlin said “significantly increasing” numbers meant money was needed straight away for bigger classrooms and larger lecture halls.

“The classroom size is inadequate given the increased demand for student places,” he said, adding it is “vitally important” funding is secured “immediately”.

The college has been knocking through smaller rooms to make larger halls, said Amanda McCloat, head of home economics.

“Applications have been consistently quite high for years, and students need up to 500 points for a place here,” she said. “We are coping at the moment, but we need investment for more buildings, larger lecture halls and increased specialist facilities.”

Ms McCloat said home economics teachers are in demand for a number of reasons. The subject is popular at junior cycle – more than a third of secondary pupils, mainly girls, take lessons – and there is a proliferation of – again mainly female – teachers taking family leave or moving into management.

Smaller class size

Like all practical subjects, class sizes are necessarily smaller than academic lessons, requiring more teachers.

While there is little hard data at present quantifying the exact numbers needed, the Teaching Council includes the subject among Irish, science and modern languages as in “critical” shortage.

And at a time of increasing obesity, Ms McCloat said the subject is arguably more important than ever.

“People are much more concerned about life skills now, more health conscious and health aware. They understand the components to have a better lifestyle, and one of the only places all of those components are taught is home economics,” she said. “It is the only subject on the curriculum teaching people how to cook, how to budget from a family perspective, how to shop, how to read food labels, how to take a recipe and know that if you cut out the butter it will reduce the calories, or serve it with brown rice it will increase the fibre and so on.”

The 700-member strong Association of Teachers of Home Economics wants the subject made mandatory in all schools.

It is already compulsory in Northern Ireland, Japan, Korea and Finland, but some schools in Ireland don’t offer the subject at all, including several all-boys boarding schools.

There also remains a “gendered approach”, with home economics often timetabled in the same slot as wood technology, for instance, where boys may be influenced on their choice by “traditional connotations”.

“It will only become normalised when everyone has the chance to study it – it is a chicken-and-egg situation,” Ms McCloat said.

Of the 101 first-year students at St Angela’s last year, just four were male. The figures reflect the applications.

The association is attempting to redress the imbalance through a number of initiatives, including the recruitment of chef Neven Maguire as its patron.

Mr Bruton has acknowledged the scarcity of home economics teachers and his department gave St Angela’s €343,100 last year to help it deal with increasing numbers.

Funding for more building works is “currently under consideration”, he said.