It should be a basic expectation of our education system that our students are taught by qualified teachers. Yet many secondary schools are increasingly reliant on teachers who lack specific expertise for the subjects they teach. Many primary schools are also struggling to find qualified teachers to cover short-term absences.
Reports and surveys compiled by school managers provide a troubling snapshot of the impact of these challenges. Children at primary level can end up being crammed into larger classes, disrupting the regular school day. Special needs teachers in some primary schools are being redeployed as class teachers, resulting in reduced access to special education among pupils with additional needs. Some Leaving Cert students are being left without qualified teachers for key subjects for months on end. Restricted access to subjects is another consequence. School managers say curtailment of sports, games and other extra-curricular activities is now a reality.
The Department of Education points out that more than 5,000 additional teachers have been hired in the past 18 months. However, schools in many cases cannot find the right teachers. That is due to a mismatch in the number of qualified teachers being produced and demand for them in key subjects such as science, maths, Irish and other languages.
Part of the problem is that teacher education providers – such as colleges, universities and private institutions – have no incentive to balance the provision of teachers against the future needs of Irish students. Another issue is that many young teachers are taking the opportunities to get job security abroad, rather than part-time work at home. Against a backdrop of negativity over the profession – in particular over two-tier payscales – applications for teacher training courses have fallen dramatically.
This has been little sign of urgency in tackling the staff shortage problem to date. A report into the supply of teachers, finalised in December 2015, was only published by the Department of Education in mid-2017. The policy response at the time was to tinker around the edges by placing a greater emphasis on the use of retired or student teachers. Much more decisive measures are needed. Stronger oversight of the teacher education system is required to help ensure there is a better chance of matching teacher supply with demand. Conversion courses and up-skilling for existing staff are options, as are subsidised college places for key subject areas.
This has been an area of policy drift for too long. Minister for Education Richard Bruton has spoken of his ambition to build the best education system in Europe. If he wants to realise this, he will need to take firm ownership of this issue. Otherwise, even more of our students risk losing out.