We’re facing serious teacher shortages in vital subjects. It’s time for a new approach

Opinion: Stem subjects are crucial - but who’s going to teach them in our classrooms?

If we don’t have the requisite number of qualified Stem teachers in the system, this will have a knock-on impact on Stem graduates at third level. Photo: iStock

Writing in The Irish Times a year ago, I cautioned that "if we continue to undervalue the role of teachers and to provide an inadequate model of funding for their training and their eventual employment, we will no longer be in a position to attract and retain the brightest and the best".

The shortage of Stem graduates choosing to “train” to become teachers has grabbed the attention of the media, of policy makers and of industry partners.

Why? To quote Tony Donohoe of Ibec, "scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians are the high-end knowledge workers who turn the wheel of the Irish economy".

If we don’t have the requisite number of qualified Stem teachers in the system, this will have a knock-on impact on our capacity to cultivate an interest in this field at second level and, ultimately, grow Stem graduates at third level.


The predicted shortage also begs the question: if there are as few as six graduates training in master's programmes to be physics teachers, who will be teaching physics in our classrooms for the next 40 years?

All of this is indeed worrying, and requires a considered policy response, however, the real problem is more complex than the headline grabbing shortage of Stem teachers suggests.

The real problem lies in the value we, as a society, place on all of our teachers, not just those in the Stem areas.

Historically, teachers in Ireland have been highly regarded and teacher education programmes have attracted a high calibre of entrant.


The quality of our education system and our teachers has been widely acknowledged, a recent international review of teacher education in Ireland concluding that “the academic standard of applicants is amongst the highest, if not the highest, in the world… this rich resource should be highly valued” (Sahlberg, 2012).

This ought to be both celebrated and preserved as a cultural value.

Today, graduate students of all subjects choosing to “train” to become teachers typically take a professional master of education, a two-year, level nine programme.

This was introduced following a reconceptualisation of teacher education programmes in 2012 in recognition of the complexities of the teaching and learning role, and the requirement for a research-based qualification.

The recent reform of teacher education programmes has been accompanied by significant changes in curriculum and assessment at school-level, requiring teachers to have the necessary competences to enact quality teaching and effective learning, while catering for a range of national priorities such as literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing, digital technology and inclusion.

While reform at both school and teacher education levels is in line with best practice internationally, we need to go further in ensuring that as part of this cultural sea change, those who are both participants and leaders in this reform agenda – namely teachers – are properly remunerated and recognised for the critical role they play.

The recruitment and retention of effective teachers in schools should be a key policy concern to ensure all children, across every classroom and school, have access to quality public education.

Serious problems

Teacher recruitment and retention have become serious policy problems in other English-speaking countries, including England and the United States.

International research indicates that teacher recruitment and retention is impacted by an inter-connected range of factors, over a career span.

Data from the OECD suggests that these include the image and status of the job, public affirmation of teachers’ work, conditions of work, salary scales, promotional pathways, modes of appointment and security of tenure.

It is neither realistic nor fair to expect graduates to sign up to a two-year master’s teaching qualification if it is not properly funded and if, once qualified, they are faced with inadequate pay and conditions in an increasingly casualised profession.

Twenty-first century teachers are operating in fast-changing environments, with the future configuration of schooling uncertain.

What is certain is that quality teachers will be of critical importance to our society and hence, for a variety of compelling educational, economic and social reasons, the quality of teachers entering the profession must be maintained.

Faced with the prospect that there will be serious shortages of teachers across a range of core areas at second-level, it is now time for a more enlightened and proactive policy approach.

Professor Judith Harford is director of the professional master of education at UCD’s school of education.