What would the effect be of a primary-teacher oversupply?

Projections suggest primary sector facing surplus of 13,000 teachers by 2030

Policy-makers are examining the potential of re-skilling surplus primary teachers for more specialist education. Photograph: Getty Images

Policy-makers are examining the potential of re-skilling surplus primary teachers for more specialist education. Photograph: Getty Images

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When the property bubble burst and much of the Irish economy collapsed, another boom took off – babies.

The number of births hit a 118-year high in 2009, when 75,500 babies were born, up almost 25 per cent on birth rates during the peak Celtic Tiger years.

Ever since births have been falling steadily. Latest figures show they are down about 35 per cent on the 2009 peak, and they are projected to drop further over the next five years. These demographic shifts have major implications for schools, teachers and pupils.

For decades there have been two constants in education: complaints about overcrowded classrooms and a teacher supply crisis.

Yet by the end of this decade we could face a sudden reversal: a major over-supply of teachers at primary level and near-empty schools in less populated areas being at risk of closure.

That is the picture painted by a new Department of Education report on teacher supply and demand for Ireland between now and 2038.

The recession-era baby boom has passed through the primary school system and into second-level. Pupil numbers peaked at primary in 2018, and are projected to fall by about 110,000 between now and 2034.

The Department of Education forecasts that a reduction in pupils at primary level and high numbers of teaching graduates could result in an oversupply of 13,000 teachers by 2029; this could grow to more than 17,000 nine years after that.

At second-level the over-supply is less dramatic, largely because pupil numbers are projected to rise up to 2024, before declining slowly.

Implications

So, what are the implications for schools, teachers and pupils?

About 100,000 children in primary school are currently in “supersized” classes of more than 30 pupils. This may be about to change.

Groups such as the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) say smaller classes are vital to ensure every child has the chance to reach their full potential.

It wants class sizes at primary school to be capped at 20 pupils to ensure teachers can give students the individual attention and support they need. Once upon a time this might have seemed fanciful – until now.

The pupil-teacher ratio is due to reach a historic low of 25:1 in the 2021/22 academic year, though this is still a way off the EU average of 20:1 and about 21:1 in the OECD.

Minister for Education Norma Foley acknowledged recently that the projected over-supply of teachers could allow for the further reduction of the pupil-teacher ratio over the coming years.

She said in her personal experience as a teacher smaller class sizes were “hugely positive” for teaching and learning, and there was scope to examine the capacity to examine further changes.

Whether the Department of Public Expenditure will agree that this is a good investment is another matter.

For example, the OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, told The Irish Times recently there is “zero correlation” between quality of tuition and class sizes.

In Japan or China, he says, class sizes are bigger but teachers spend more time with individual students outside the classroom.

“I think the question is not how big is a class; the question is how do we configure this space, the time, the people, the technology to give that individual time with each and every one.

“This is where teachers need to become really good coaches, good mentors, good facilitators and evaluators.”

Re-skilling teachers

An oversupply of teachers could usher in new era where teachers are re-skilled and up-skilled to meet the changing needs of the school population – with primary teachers moving into second level, for example.

Officially there are teacher redeployment schemes which ensure that any surplus permanent teachers are relocated to other schools which have vacancies.

Policy-makers are examining the potential of re-skilling surplus primary teachers for more specialist education.

With plans to introduce more foreign languages, science and coding into the curriculum, some suggest having a pool of specialist teachers in these areas that could be shared among schools.

Another option is to re-skill primary teachers to teach at second level, where demand for teachers is projected to be greater.

For example, a plan is being examined which involves allowing primary school teachers to teach students with special needs in post-primary schools.

This is expected to be a major growth area given the sharp increase in special classes at primary level.

One barrier towards primary teachers moving to second level has been a financial disincentive which sees primary teachers earn less than their second-level colleagues in the same setting.

Under reform plans, however, teachers would not face any financial penalty in moving from one sector to the other.

School closures

Department of Education projections on school enrolments make bleak reading for many small schools. Enrolments are forecast to drop by about 20 per cent between now and 2034, leading to a possibility of far more closures.

Ireland already has the highest proportion of small schools in Europe. Nearly half of our primary schools have four teachers or fewer. However, they account for just 15 per cent of the primary school population.

Most of these schools are in the west, where local populations tend to be static or falling, and getting older.

There are also local dynamics at play, such as commuting and job patterns, which can impact on pupil numbers. The longer term impact of Covid-19 and the growth of remote working may yet lead to further shifts in these patterns.

The department’s official policy is that schools close only with the consent of parents or a board of management.

While there is generally little appetite in closing down schools, attitudes can quickly change when numbers drop to a point where parents don’t have confidence that it is their children’s best interests to be educated in a very small setting.

Groups such as the Irish Primary Principals’ Network say there is an urgent need for creative supports for small schools to ensure their survival. It points out that while enrolments are projected to fall over the coming decade or so, longer-term projections point to a rise in numbers beyond this.

It says clustering supports or teachers across groups of small schools is one way to ensure they are sustainable into the future.

The closure of small schools is seen by many as the sad, irreversible decline of rural areas. Yet small schools like Derryoober National School in Co Galway have become templates for how to save rural schools.

The 160-year-old school was on the brink of closure a few years ago when pupil numbers fell to single digits.

It has since reinvented itself as a community hub with childcare and after-school facilities; in turn this has encouraged commuting parents to use it.

The impact has been transformative: numbers have climbed towards 30 in recent times. This had led to the school receiving sanction to hire more teachers.

By responding to the changing needs of the community, it has shown that it is possible to carve out a new future.

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