Primary pupils could be sent home due to lack of substitute teachers, principals warn

Schools forced to use unqualified staff to provide emergency cover for sick teachers

Pupils in primary schools could end up being sent home due to a growing shortage of substitute teachers, principals have warned.

The Irish Primary Principals Network said schools were being forced to use unqualified staff or special needs teachers to provide cover for classroom teachers who are out sick.

Pairic Clerkin, the network’s chief executive, said schools across the country were unable to source substitutes since the new academic year got under way.

He said significant numbers of school staff were unable to turn up for work because of public health guidance, which recommends that staff with cold or flu symptoms should stay at home and get tested.


In addition, Covid-19 precautions mean schools are not supposed to split up classes, which was used a measure of last resort in the past.

Another frustration, he said, was that schools were being directed to avoid using special education teachers as a back-up because, unlike last year, they are not entitled to “banked” hours. This allows schools to ensure vulnerable children do not lose out on teaching time.

“Far more teachers than usual are out, either because of Covid or because they have symptoms,” Mr Clerkin said.

“We’re hearing of larger schools that have nine or 10 teachers out on any given day. While an administrative principal can step in for the day, what happens with the other nine absences?

“Our options are narrowing. We’re reaching a stage where school boards of management will be left with no other option but to send classes home, or keep them at home, for safety reasons.”

Flexible arrangements

Minister for Education Norma Foley has said the Government had hired hundreds of additional teachers and expanded teacher supply panels for primary schools.

About 380 teachers have been hired on a full-time basis to provide substitute cover to about 2,500 primary schools.

She also said flexible arrangements were being introduced to allow student teachers fill short-term vacancies and allow those on career breaks to return without being penalised.

However, principals say they are regularly unable to access substitutes from supply panels because they are oversubscribed.

For example, an IPPN survey of principals in Cork and the Louth-Meath area found that half of schools had been unable to access a substitute using the new supply panel.

The survey recorded anonymous comments from principals who expressed frustration at the situation.

“Although we have access to a supply panel, it only works for planned absences. It also fills up quickly, so a lot of the time I can’t get a sub. The situation is really dire. I didn’t get a fully trained teacher for substitution,” said one principal.

Another commented: “I dread the call in the mornings from a sick teacher ... We have three out today (Covid isolation) and I have no idea how I am going to cover their absence next week.”

Another principal commented: “The sub panel is booked until November, and if a teacher is unable to attend school, I am stuck. I have no option but use SET [special education teacher], as only other option is to send class home.”

Catch-up ‘smokescreen’

Some principals said that a new Covid catch-up initiative, which allows schools to hire teachers for pupils who may have fallen behind, has shrunk the pool of available substitutes.

“The initiative is a smokescreen which has actually undermined our ability to provide day-to-day cover. I am stitching each day together week on week and am so lucky to have access to a panel.”

The Department of Education has said it is in contact with teacher-training colleges to see if more students can be freed up to supply substitute cover in primary schools.

It said further work was under way to determine "if there are ways the operation of the panels can be enhanced", while the the Teaching Council has emailed more than 111,000 teachers on its register, asking any who may be available to substitute to register with, a national teacher substitution portal for schools.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent