Minister for Education Richard Bruton may well have ambitions to build the best education and training service in Europe within a decade – but there is a problem.
We face an immediate, medium- and long-term crisis in providing qualified teachers across Stem, language, and other subjects, who can teach in our second-level schools. This means our children are, in many cases, being taught by teachers who are not qualified to deliver the subjects they are teaching.
At primary level, there is also an acute shortage of qualified substitute teachers to take up maternity and sickness-related replacement work. This is disrupting classes and leading in some cases to resource teachers being taken away from supporting children with special needs to teach mainstream classes.
If the problem is bad now, it may well grow much worse. A population bulge is set to transfer from primary to second-level over the coming years.
These concerns will doubtless get an airing this week as teachers’ conferences get under way.
But, to date, many of “solutions” being touted will do little to change the reality on the ground. For example, extending application dates and creating additional places – as the Minister for Education is currently doing – achieves nothing.
If you have difficulty attracting customers into any business, expanding the size of your premises is not the answer.
As with all complex problems, there is no magic bullet or single reason why the crisis has arisen in the first place. So, here are 10 actions to redress the current crisis in teacher supply:
1. Pay equality
To attract qualified teachers into the profession in the current labour market, the Government must restore all teachers to the common basic pay scale, which is currently being discussed at the Public Service Pay Commission. It is not the solution to resolving teacher supply, but is a major part of it.
Competition for graduates is hotting up. Many colleges report that graduates with teaching qualifications are being snapped up by other sectors. To compete, teaching needs to be made as attractive as possible.
2. Full-time posts
Graduates are no longer going to be prepared to accept fragments of jobs in the hope of securing a full-time job with salary attached.
The Government must commit to funding full-time teaching posts for graduates. If the teachers’ subjects are not initially needed within one school, put in place systems to spread their teaching over two schools.
As it stands, part time non-permanent contracts set against the cost of living in our cities today makes a career in our school system highly unattractive to many.
3. Pay trainee teachers
The old HDip has been replaced by a two-year professional masters of education (PME) qualification.
Since its introduction, applications have dropped dramatically. In no other profession are trainees asked to deliver a service unpaid for two years, while paying fees of more than €12,000 while they do so. We don’t ask nursing students to do so, so why do we expect teachers to teach unpaid?
These PME students need to be paid a trainee teacher rate when they are in the classroom teaching, as nursing students currently are in hospitals
The qualification cannot be rowed back on. We have worked hard to achieve a fully qualified teaching profession, professionally supported through ongoing in-service, and thus prepared to meet the complexity of students’ needs.
4.Incentives to stay in Ireland
Given the attractiveness of teaching contracts with substantial bonuses currently on offer in the Middle East and further afield, to which thousands of young Irish teachers are now flocking, offer PME graduates a full reimbursement of their fees if they commit to a similar two/three-year contract to teach in the Irish education system.
5. Encourage emigrant teachers to return
We need to create an online application portal for all teaching posts, where schools can advertise what they have on offer. This portal must have Skype-style interview facilities so that teachers working on contract abroad can present themselves for interview by individual school principals and interview panels.
We also need to send IDA-style delegations out to meet with Irish teachers working abroad, to attract them back to work in our schools.
6. Hold on to new graduates
Science, language and home economics teaching graduates can secure starting salaries in other sectors far in excess of those currently offered to newly qualified teachers. We need incentives to keep these graduates in the education system. So, why not offer all graduates of four-year teaching degrees a cash bonus to help them reimburse the cost of their undergraduate teaching qualification if they complete a two/three-year teaching contract following graduation.
7. Match needs to supply
We need to devise a national plan for teacher supply in which the needs of the second-level system on a subject-by-subject basis is planned over a 10- to 20-year period.
This will require buy-in from all higher-education teacher-training providers both in the public and private sector. Offering anyone training in their teaching subject without reference to the ongoing needs within subject provision and hoping for the best is not sustainable.
8. Loosen teacher registration rules
It is now completely unacceptable to hand a teacher a book in a subject they have no background in and hope for the best. However, we have now moved to the other extreme where graduates cannot register until they have every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed in terms of the curriculum. The Teaching Council needs to become more flexible in terms of initial criteria for registration.
After all, a graduate who has worked for many years in their subject area in industry or business, and has a substantial amount of the credits in the specific subject area, should be able to enter the profession with a detailed plan agreed with the Teaching Council as to how they acquire the missing modules through ongoing in-service.
9. Encourage retirees to remain
There are many healthy teachers who have completed 40 years’ service and can currently retire on full pensions. If they choose to remain on to 65 or 70, they will continue to pay 15 per cent of pay towards pension for no benefits, and their pensions will still be capped at 50 per cent of final salary.
As an emergency short-term measure, it would be worthwhile financially to incentivise current senior teachers in subject areas experiencing shortages to continue teaching, and defer drawing down their pension for some years.
10. Panels of substitute teachers
At primary level, the department must reinstate a countrywide panel of paid substitute teachers, who are permanently available to step into schools to provide cover for maternity and sickness cover.
These teachers need to have a steady guaranteed income if they are going to make themselves available to take on the difficult task of stepping into another teacher’s class for a period or days, weeks or months.