Teaching shortages: students deserve better

More retired staff than ever are propping up primary and secondary education

A recent report published by Minister for Education Richard Bruton points to serious problems with teacher supply. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

A recent report published by Minister for Education Richard Bruton points to serious problems with teacher supply. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


The very least students in our education system are entitled to is to be taught by a skilled, qualified teacher with a detailed knowledge of the curriculum. Yet many secondary schools are increasingly reliant on “out of field” teachers who lack specific qualifications for the subjects they teach. Staff shortages are also a problem at primary level, where schools struggle to find substitute teachers to cover short-term absences. This can lead to children being crammed into larger classes, disrupting the regular school day.

A report on the issue of teacher supply, published recently by Minister for Education Richard Bruton, confirms these are issues of major concern. What is striking, however, is the gaping absence of reliable data. It seems we may be producing enough teachers each year. But there is a mismatch in the number of qualified teachers being produced and demand for them in key subject areas such as science, maths, Irish and other languages. The report notes that 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.

The system used to select trainee teachers for many post-graduate courses, for instance, takes no account of their areas of expertise. In fact, it actively discriminates against teachers in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects. Ironically, this is an area where the shortage of qualified teachers is among the most acute.

Given the growing number of children due to enter the education system over the coming years, the need for teachers will grow, particularly at second level. There is every chance the situation will get worse unless it is tackled urgently. However, the report into the supply of teachers, finalised in December 2015, was published by Bruton only in the past week.

After sitting on its findings for more than a year, his immediate response has been to place a greater emphasis on the use of student teachers and retired members of staff to cover short-term absences. This is hardly inspiring. Latest figures show more retired staff than ever before are propping up our primary and secondary education system. If we are serious about tackling this issue, it is vital the Department of Education takes firm ownership of it.

We urgently need proper oversight of the education system to ensure there is a better balance between teacher supply and demand. Conversion courses and upskilling for existing staff are other options. An over-supply of teachers means younger members may opt to to abandon the profession if they are unable to make ends meet. An under-supply in key areas risks undermining the quality of education in classrooms. Our students, and teachers , deserve better.