The lure of higher salaries in the UK and Middle East is contributing to a staffing crisis in Irish schools, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation has warned.
Speaking at the opening of the INTO's annual congress, in Belfast, the union's president, Rosena Jordan, said a chronic shortage of substitute teachers is leading to split classes, to retired teachers being drafted in, or to the use of unqualified staff.
Despite the fact that almost 2,000 teachers completed teacher-education courses last year, Ms Jordan said, she had heard about the shortage of substitute teachers in practically every school she visited. “Every child is entitled to be taught by a fully qualified teacher,” she added. “That should be the cornerstone or foundation for anyone hoping to build the best education system in the world.”
Yet, Ms Jordan said, increasingly this is not the case. As a result “classes are split, other teachers are asked to provide cover, retired colleagues are cajoled back, or enthusiastic amateurs are drafted in.”
The INTO president said cuts to new-entrant pay between 2011 and 2013 had led to the first fall-off in demand for primary-teacher courses.
In recent years there has also been enormous recruitment of Irish teachers to work abroad, particularly in the UK and the Middle East. More than 1,500 primary teachers are on career breaks in the current school year, and about 700 primary teachers leave the payroll each year other than for retirement, according to Ms Jordan. “Higher salaries and professional contracts are the main attractions.”
She said the situation could be rescued by two key policy decisions: fair pay for teachers and regular contracts of employment. “Teachers graduating from colleges of education after four years of study deserve better than zero-hours contracts,” she said.
Ms Jordan added that last September’s agreement on revised pay scales was a significant achievement for new entrants. It delivered the full value of a previously scrapped honours-degree allowance, worth about €4,000, for new entrants. This, she said, resolved the equality issue between post-2012 entrants and their immediate predecessors in 2011. It benefits 3,500 primary teachers who started since February 2012 and every teacher who begins work from September 2016.
But she warned that the issue of pay equality was not fully resolved. “We believe that this unequal pay for exactly the same work is neither justifiable nor lawful,” she said. “The great majority of new entrant teachers are young, and we believe that it is indirectly discriminatory on the age ground to pay them less for the same work.”
Ms Jordan also called for principals and deputy principals to be paid the same as their second-level counterparts. This was agreed in 2007, under the benchmarking process, but never paid. It had, she said, become a huge source of grievance for primary principals and deputy principals.
She said recently Minister for Education Richard Bruton had remarked that we are lucky in Ireland to have such a dedicated and committed teaching profession, “with school leaders of the highest calibre”. “Fine words don’t butter potatoes,” the INTO president said. “It is past time that pay matches plámás.”
On the issue of refugees, she said Ireland was well placed to offer settling refugees a warm welcome. But she warned that schools’ ability to cope will be stretched beyond reasonable limits by resource reductions. Schools, she said, needed additional help to be able to give young refugees extra attention, such as access to intensive language learning and trauma counselling. In-service programmes were also necessary to equip teachers to meet young refugees’ educational needs.
Ms Jordan said “blinkered approaches from some right-wing populist politicians” were at risk of stirring up resentment and storing up problems. “The imperative to support security, democracy and sustainable development means that governments, civil society and the trade-union movement must stand together to respect the rights of all people.”