Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Ireland needs to address root causes of acute shortages of teachers

Until everyone joins to raise a chorus of protest, it is unlikely anything will be done to fix it

There were 23 principals and deputy principals representing every area in the country at a recent executive meeting of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD). Not one had a full cohort of teachers even though second-level schools were due to reopen shortly.

As NAPD director Paul Crone says, it indicates just how serious the problem of sourcing teachers has become. What was once an urban problem is now countrywide, although it is worse in Dublin. NAPD represents second-level management but it is true of both primary and second levels.

There are particular gaps in Irish, modern foreign languages, home economics, physics and maths. As for home economics teachers, they can work anywhere they wish, given how few of them are available.

The sad thing is that teachers of other subjects are often in precarious employment, despite having studied for four years, followed by an expensive two-year Professional Master of Education (PME), and being paid less than those recruited before 2011.


This precarity will only deepen the crisis, as disillusioned teachers struggling to find stable employment leave the profession. Not to mention that even those in the much-sought-after subjects still cannot afford to pay rent in Dublin, much less secure a mortgage or raise a family.

Senior management in schools are reluctant to publicise the current shortfall for fears of triggering a tsunami of worry in parents and guardians. Schools also have a long history of stoicism, pragmatism and making the unworkable work.

Journalists know before principals what the State is planning for schools. Principals and deputies are retiring in droves

Throw Covid-19 at them and they will figure out how to keep educating students in unprecedented conditions. Add thousands of Ukrainian children, many of them traumatised, and they will do everything possible to welcome and integrate them. But what are schools to do without teachers?

Until everyone — principals, unions, management bodies and parents — joins to raise a chorus of protest, it’s unlikely that anything will be done.

It is not an entirely bleak picture. As schools began to reopen this week, there were many things for which to be grateful. It is hard to convey how miserable the past two years were.

Masks dampened the usual energy and interaction in classrooms — rooms that were also freezing due to the need to maximise ventilation.

The months of lockdown strained friendships among students, and social anxiety had a mini-epidemic of its own. Even when the masks came off, anxiety levels remained high.

As for staff, they grimly struggled to bring some life into the near-silent classrooms. Online learning, which took twice the energy and achieved half the results, was even more stressful.

In a long teaching career, I have never seen staff so burnt out and exhausted as in June this year.

Senior management has its own brand of burnout, not least because the Government continues to communicate with schools via the media. Journalists know before principals what the State is planning for schools. Principals and deputies are retiring in droves.

Even still, heading back to school in something akin to pre-pandemic conditions is great for everyone.

Or rather, it would be wonderful if there were not only a recruitment but a retention crisis. Teachers cannot make the same long-term commitment to schools if they know they will never be able to afford a house within commuting distance. As costs of fuel and of living in general escalate, the crisis is becoming even more acute.

Flexible work should be prioritised. At the moment, second-level teachers can only opt for a full or half schedule of classes

This autumn, there will be scores of unqualified teachers in our schools. Schools will be more than grateful to those individuals because the alternative is no teacher at all but it is not good for the long-term health of education.

Is it time to introduce an Irish version of London weighting, where teachers in expensive urban areas receive a special allowance? (This weighting does not close the gap but it helps.)

Any pay differential is divisive — ask those who have started teaching since 2011. People could rightly point out it is not cheap to live in the country, either, but the movement of teachers is not from Kerry and Donegal to Dublin but in the other direction.

We should also pay trainee teachers. Other professions are not expected to fund themselves while gaining a qualification. According to Gradireland, 95 per cent of companies that offer long, structured internships pay their employees.

Flexible work should be prioritised. At the moment, second-level teachers can only opt for a full or half schedule of classes. Some teachers might be tempted back into the profession if they could work, for example, two-thirds of a normal schedule instead.

Some teachers may want to work more. From December 2021, teachers were allowed to work up to six hours a week on top of their scheduled classes. The Department of Education has been silent about retaining this measure but it should not only be retained but expanded where there are proven unfillable vacancies.

The real roots of this crisis lie in the failure to plan for demographic change, and also in unsustainable, ever-increasing workloads in an increasingly precarious profession. Continuing to ignore these root causes will reap precisely the blighted harvest that has been sown.