Ireland’s stated objective, as set out in Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s recently published plan for edcucation , is to have the No 1 education system in Europe by 2026, and to be a European leader in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
The plan also says if Ireland is to be at the forefront of the global technological revolution, we must be a leader in nurturing, developing and deploying Stem talent. If we are to achieve this objective, our young people must have access to top-quality education in the sciences and we must have an adequate supply of Stem teachers.
The current teacher shortage in some key subject areas, and the fall in applications for teacher education places, must cast doubt on our ability to achieve the Minister’s plan. At post-primary level, the number of graduates applying for second-level teaching courses has fallen dramatically in the past five years, culminating last year in what has been referred to as a “crisis” in teacher recruitment and retention.
This has not happened suddenly. In 2012, an international panel which reviewed teacher education in Ireland (Sahlberg 2012) found that “the academic standard of applicants (to teacher education courses in Ireland) is amongst the highest, if not the highest in the world”.
However, the report warned that there was an increasing reliance in post-primary schools on “out-of-field teachers” in some subject areas and advised that the supply of and demand for teachers should bemonitored continuously.
The report recommended that “appropriate databases and forecasting mechanisms are developed to ensure that an adequate supply of teachers with the required specialisms are in place” to avoid the increasing reliance on out-of-field teachers.
In 2015, a detailed study of teacher supply, Striking the Balance, carried out by a Teaching Council working group found a significant imbalance between teacher supply and demand in mathematics, Irish, biology, modern languages and home economics. The study recommended that steps be taken immediately to put in place a process for ongoing monitoring and forecasting of teacher supply and demand and recommended that a standing group, to include representatives of the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority and school management bodies, be set up as a matter of urgency. To date, this has not been happened.
The crisis in attracting teachers is partly an unintended consequence of adding an extra year to initial teacher education courses arising out of the government’s strategy on numeracy and literacy in 2011. The new two-year programme Masters programme (PME) – which replaced the old nine-month H Dip – is expensive, costing over €12,000 for fees alone.
This a prohibitive for many students. A Stem graduate, who wishes to become a post-primary teacher, now has to spend six years in college, with no guarantee of a job after graduation.
Many schools are without a specialised Stem teacher (eg in physics) but can only offer a part-time post to such a teacher. Outside the main cities, there are many unemployed or underemployed Stem teachers who cannot survive on the salary available to them and so they emigrate or move to a job in industry where they are paid a more realistic salary.
The reduced starting salary for teachers (introduced in 2012) exacerbates the problem. The current starting salary for a full-time teacher is about €35,000; the hourly rate for a part-time teacher is €43 an hour. Bearing in mind that the average wage in Ireland is now €45,000 for a full-time worker and €16,000 for a part-time worker, it is not surprising that teaching is no longer the attractive and highly sought after profession it once was.
Added to the costs of training, and the difficulty in getting a full-time post on graduation, a young teacher now has the added challenge of finding affordable accommodation in which to live, especially if he/she is offered a post in the Dublin area.
Because Irish-trained teachers are highly valued in other countries, it is not surprising that many of our best graduates emigrate to countries where the salary and employment conditions are considerably more attractive.
We cannot expect our brightest and best to embrace a teaching career if the costs of training are prohibitive, posts are limited and remuneration is inadequate.
The solutions are obvious. There should be a closer match between supply and demand. There should be financial incentives for students to undertake courses in subjects which there are shortages and for universities to provide such courses.
A system of optimising the use of specialised teachers should be introduced eg teachers of subjects which are in short supply should be guaranteed a full-time post even if this means sharing between schools. Remuneration should be such as to ensure that newly qualified teachers will not emigrate or leave the system.
The solution will require some additional financial investment on the part of government –but the long-term return on this investment will be more than worthwhile. We need to take action now before it is too late – a “wait and see” policy is not good enough.
- Áine Hyland is Emeritus Professor of Education, University College Cork