Teacher shortages: ‘It’s almost impossible to find a substitute’

Schools are scrambling to find staff to teach classes due to higher rates of sick leave

John Weir, principal of St Mary’s Parish Primary School, Drogheda, Co Louth: Last week, the school had an average of eight or nine teachers out each day. Photograph: Ciara Wilkinson

John Weir, principal of St Mary’s Parish Primary School, Drogheda, Co Louth: Last week, the school had an average of eight or nine teachers out each day. Photograph: Ciara Wilkinson

 

John Weir has come to dread the early-morning phone call from a sick or self-isolating teacher who can’t make it to school.

“The hunt for a substitute teacher begins. It can take hours of trawling, but it’s almost impossible to find one. It’s at crisis point,” says Weir, principal of St Mary’s Parish Primary School, Drogheda, Co Louth.

Last week, the school had an average of eight or nine teachers out each day.

The high numbers are partly due to public health rules which require staff with cold or flu symptoms to stay away and get tested.

“In previous times a teacher might have taken a Panadol and brought some Kleenex and come in. But now, if they have symptoms, they’ve to go and get tested, which means they are out for at least two days.”

Officially, at least, the school has access to a panel of substitute teachers who are shared across other schools in the area.

When he looked last week, the next available slot for a substitute was November 17th.

Retired teachers

The only option, says Weir, was to find a retired teacher or teaching student at short notice; another measure of last resort is asking special education teachers to fill in.

“We know it’s not best practice, but there is literally no other option besides sending an entire class home,” says Weir.

Last year, schools were able to bank lost hours of special education teaching to ensure vulnerable children did not lose out. However, this policy has ceased this year.

Ironically, he says, the Government’s Covid catch-up initiative, which allows schools to hire teachers for pupils who may have fallen behind, appears to have shrunk the pool of available substitutes.

Show on the road

Weir says new options such as reintroducing banked hours or ensuring more substitute teachers are available are urgently needed for schools to operate on a sustainable basis.

Schools, he says, have managed to keep going due to staff pulling together and keeping the show on the road.

However, he says there seems to be a reluctance to admit that the substitute teacher problem is having a destabilising effect on our schools.

“The current solutions to the substitute teacher crisis are simply not workable and it is disingenuous of Government Ministers to suggest otherwise.”