The six-year route to qualifying as a second-level teacher is a long, winding and expensive road.
As Ireland reaches full employment with access to quality jobs after a four-year degree programme in many disciplines, the length of teacher training with its associated costs is becoming a disincentive to entering the profession, according to experts.
There are a number of routes into a second-level teaching career: a three- or four-year undergraduate degree, usually arts, followed by a two-year postgraduate programme has traditionally been the most common.
The two-year Professional Master in Education (PME), which costs between about €9,000 and €12,000, replaced the traditional nine-month Hdip as a measure to enhance teaching standards in schools but led to a sharp drop in applications.
While there were about 1,200 graduates a year from State-funded Hdips, this has fallen to about 800 under the new PME.
Dr Melanie Ní Dhuinn, assistant professor of teacher education at Trinity College Dublin, is the co-author of a research paper on the impact of the cost of the PME on would-be teachers.
“Historically, participation in postgraduate initial teacher training has been student self-funded,with few grants or other forms of fee remission; this remains the current policy,” says Ní Dhuinn.
The financial responsibility for their professional education is solely borne by students and, in many instances, their families, she says.
Ní Dhuinn and her fellow researchers argue that gains made from enhanced standards are being jeopardised by unintended consequences of these additional costs, which can be both emotional and financial.
This, in turn, is negatively impacting on the attractiveness of entry to the teaching profession and thereafter on teacher supply.
Ní Dhuinn says their research findings are very concerning in terms of the long-term sustainability of the current model.
“Long-term gains may well may be lost to short-term and limited preliminary thinking,” she says.
“The current shortage of teachers in Ireland may also endure further negative impact in the long term as the profession struggles to attract potential teachers, the attractiveness and viability of the PME as evidenced in this research does not help the cause in any way,” says Ní Dhuinn.
Dr Elaine Keane, from NUI Galway's school of education, says reverting the programme back to a single year is not the answer.
“Our experience in the last few years has shown us that the teachers graduating from the two-year programme are much better prepared for the professional demands of a teaching career, and we feel, are better teachers,” says Keane.
The costs, she acknowledges, post a particular barrier for those from lower socio-economic groups.
Keane’s own research found a significant decrease in the participation rates of entrants to teacher education postgraduate programmes from poorer backgrounds in tandem with a significant increase in entrants from more affluent groups.
“Even those who may subsequently find they are eligible for Susi support, uncertainty about eligibility and levels of support is inevitably off-putting to prospective candidates from lower socio-economic groups.”
The Department of Education points out that it is addressing the issue of teacher shortages and through a new action plan, launched last November.
It is funding, in particular, the expansion of concurrent undergraduate courses – where students get the bulk of teacher training alongside their degree – which are cheaper and quick to complete from a student’s point of view.
The department estimates the number of places overall on teacher education programmes will jump from about 1,650 last year to 1,900 this year.
Minister for Education Joe McHugh has also pointed to extra supports, such an extra €1 million which has been placed in a student assistance fund and ringfenced for student teachers.
While academics have welcomed these steps, many say much more needs to be done to support students.
Keane says financial supports are needed, especially for those who fall just outside Susi grant thresholds.
“We find student teachers from lower socio-economic groups stress the inadequacy of career guidance support in schools, especially for those from lower socio-economic groups,” she says.
One symptom of the recent intake into teaching is predominantly middle-class and lacks the diversity of the community at large.
“While the ‘role model’ argument is complicated and problematic in some respects, it still holds that in our very diverse society and schools, if most of our teachers are only from a certain background, then the students generally do not relate to, or see themselves in, their teachers,” says Keane.
“Not only does this make them feel that teaching is not for them, but it also sends them a certain message about who (what ‘type’ of student) can – and who cannot – go to higher education and become a professional,” she says.
“It’s not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with teachers from a middle class background – the issue is that we want to have teachers from a diverse range of backgrounds, reflecting modern Ireland.
“We should demonstrate to students in schools that, irrespective of their own background, they too can aspire and succeed – but adequate and appropriate support is vital.”
One new entrant teacher’s story: ‘There’s no incentive to shell out 10 grand for two years when you can’t work’
John Toner is a physics teacher from Galway who decided to do the PME in NUI Galway in 2014 after years of working in the tech sector.
“Before I decided to go for teaching, I was in management at a tech company. I was on very good money and was comfortable so the idea of a two-year course didn’t put me off,” he says.
“However, reality soon hit home. It was almost impossible to do the two-year course and raise my two kids. One of the youngest was just under a year at the time and we – we had childcare and mortgage to pay. I had to pay out €5,000 in fees for first year of course which was fine as I had savings but as I went through the year money evaporated.
“We burned through money on one income. I ended up working as a cleaner in the evenings and cleaning places after college at weekends and at evenings to make ends meet. It was as tough from a family point of view because I was gone all day and come home in the evenings to let my wife put the kids to bed; it was stressful.
“In year two of the course you pay out €2,000 and you’re probably only in the college for a handful of weeks. For the rest of the year, you’re teaching and working.
“When I worked in the tech industry you got some payment when training whereas we were paying to get experience in the job. You work half the normal contact hours of a teacher but for zero pay. When you’re doing the second year, you can’t take on any other jobs as the course load is too high and you’re in school during the day.
“The people who seemed to be comfortable on the course came from affluent families but the majority were on shoestring. No one was out buying lunch – you watched the pennies.
“I think it is frightening off people who don’t want to get into debt or the fact you can’t do part-time work on side.
“A guy on my course had a HGV licence and was working evenings, nights and weekends to try and keep his head above water. He couldn’t pay his fees by the very end which delayed him from working and looking for [teaching] jobs.
“I had Stem background, a PhD and what the Government claim they are crying out for but there is no incentive for people with these skills who would make great teachers.
“There is no incentive to shell out 10 grand for two years when you can’t work to be on the same pay scale as someone with a degree and no other work experience.”
Postgraduate teaching qualifications: How much they cost
NUI Galway: €10,600
Mary Immaculate College: €11,128 (primary)
*Course fees are for the total two-year cost of Professional Master of Education (PME) courses and relate to post-primary teaching, unless otherwise stated.