Shortage of qualified teachers threatens to undermine plan to become Stem leader

Analysis: We have plenty of teachers – but they are qualified for the wrong subjects

Job prospects for tens of thousands of young people will depend on Ireland being at the forefront of what is sometimes described as the fourth industrial revolution.

Job prospects for tens of thousands of young people will depend on Ireland being at the forefront of what is sometimes described as the fourth industrial revolution.

 

There is no faulting the Government’s vaulting ambition in seeking to become the European leader in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.

Job prospects for tens of thousands of young people will depend on Ireland being at the forefront of what is sometimes described as the fourth industrial revolution.

That’s why Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s 10-year strategy seeks to increase the number of female students taking Stem subjects in the Leaving Cert by 40 per cent and the overall number of students by 20 per cent.

But there’s a major problem: where are we going to find the qualified teachers to teach these subjects?

Many schools currently report acute difficulties recruiting teachers for Stem subjects.

Draft figures seen by The Irish Times on the pipeline of teachers due to graduate from postgraduate courses over the next two years indicate that the problem may well be about to get worse.

Physics graduates

In the two-year professional master of education courses – formerly known as the HDip – there are just six physics graduates training to be teachers.

Other Stem subjects fare little better: in computer studies/ICT, there are six; in applied maths there are four; in technology there are 16; in maths there are 96.

By contrast, there are some 471 English, 395 geography and 360 history trainees. We seem to have plenty of teachers – it’s just they’re not necessarily in the subjects we need.

It should be noted that these are draft figures and exclude some trainee teachers at Trinity and Hibernia (an online teacher training service), but the trend is clear: instead of a surge in Stem teachers, the numbers are at risk of reducing to a trickle.

The controversy over two-tier pay scales and difficulties in accessing permanent full-time posts has cast a cloud over the profession

Much of this is down to the fact that there are so many well-paid job opportunities in these areas due to the growing economy.

Many graduates simply are not attracted to the idea of spending two years training as a second-level teacher , with fees of up to €12,000.

On top of that, the controversy over two-tier pay scales and difficulties in accessing permanent full-time posts has cast a cloud over the profession. Of those who do end up graduating, there’s no guarantee they will stay in Ireland to teach.

Many take career breaks or emigrate to the Middle East where the capacity to earn more tax-free is a lucrative prospect.

At last count, for example, there were at least 2,300 teachers on career breaks in the current school year, up from 2,100 last year.

So, what does this mean in the classroom?

It means students face the risk of being taught by unqualified teachers who are unfamiliar with the curriculum, and who try to stay one step ahead of their students.

As a result, the quality of education – particularly for higher performing students where we underperform internationally – is at risk.

Hidden problem

This is a largely a hidden problem. No school wants to admit that it has an unqualified or “out of field” teacher to teach a key subject for students at Leaving Cert level. Doing so would most likely alarm parents and well as students.

However, surveys by school management bodies indicate that up to 96 per cent of schools are having difficulties finding qualified teachers for key subjects.

Up until very recently, there has been an absence of leadership when it comes to tackling this alarming mismatch in the supply of teachers versus the needs of individual schools.

The Department of Education has tended to leave it to schools – who are technically independent employers – to recruit teachers to meet its own needs.

Higher education providers, meanwhile, are also technically autonomous and fill their education courses with students without regard to the needs of individual schools.

Responsibility

Nobody, it seems, has wanted to take responsibility for addressing it.

For instance, when a report into the supply and demand of teachers was completed for the Department of Education in December 2015, it took a year and a half to publish it.

In a statement yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Bruton acknowledged that schools have reported shortages of teachers in subjects such as physics, and said the reasons were “complex”.

He added that the new Stem strategy commits to “collecting and analysing” baseline data on the availability of Stem teachers and “prioritising measures to support the supply of such teachers, if any immediate gaps are identified”.

He said the Minister is considering a range of measures to resolve “pinch points”, such as the steps taken recently to increase the number of students admitted to the home economics programme.

Stem is critical to future economic growth and to opening up job opportunities for thousands of young people

Mr Bruton and his officials will need to act quickly. Experts agree we are on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live and work.

In its scale, scope, and complexity, say experts, the transformation will be unlike anything we have experienced before.

“Stem is critical to future economic growth and to opening up job opportunities for thousands of young people,” said Moira Leydon, the ASTI’s assistant general secretary.

“If we don’t have teachers with the appropriate skills to teach these subjects to the highest level, then I have to say we should all be very concerned.”