Urgent action needed as secondary schools lack teachers

Teacher supply dwindling under high cost of courses and lure of better pay abroad

Getting set for the Teachers’ Union of Ireland annual congress in Killarney: a poll indicates half of schools struggle with teacher vacancies in subjects such as Irish, maths and science. Photograph: Tommy Clancy

Getting set for the Teachers’ Union of Ireland annual congress in Killarney: a poll indicates half of schools struggle with teacher vacancies in subjects such as Irish, maths and science. Photograph: Tommy Clancy

 

A recent poll carried out by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland of principals and deputy principals in 120 second-level schools indicates that half of those schools are struggling with unfilled teacher vacancies in key subjects such as Irish, maths and science.

The survey found that almost all schools experienced difficulties in recruiting teachers in the past six months. Almost half said they still had unfilled teaching vacancies. Subject areas encountering the most severe recruitment and retention difficulties were Irish, home economics, French, maths, Spanish, physics, construction studies/woodwork, biology and chemistry.

The shortage of teachers in these subject areas was foreseen some years ago. In 2012, an international expert panel on teacher education in Ireland, chaired by Finnish expert Pasi Sahlberg, advised that the supply of and demand for teachers should be systematically monitored. The report recommended that the Department of Education and Skills should develop a mechanism for forecasting teacher supply. Computerised teacher forecasting models are common in other EU countries but have not yet been developed in Ireland.

In 2015, a detailed report, Striking the Balance, identified a significant imbalance between teacher supply and demand in maths, 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 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.

Academic expense

However, it took until March 2018 to set up a steering group on teacher supply and a teacher supply action plan was finally launched by the Minister for Education in November 2018. This action plan includes no fewer than 22 measures to address the teacher supply issue.

However developments since 2015 have exacerbated the problem.

A Stem graduate has to spend six years in college to qualify as a second-level teacher, with no guarantee of a job 

The two-year professional masters programme (PME) for second-level teachers – which replaced the old nine-month H Dip some years ago – is expensive, costing more than €12,000 for fees alone. This is prohibitive for many students. A Stem graduate now has to spend six years in college to qualify as a second-level teacher, with no guarantee of a job after graduation. And for such a graduate, the overall cost of training to be a secondary teacher is more expensive than training to be a medical doctor since the final two years (the PME years) are charged at post-graduate rates which are more than twice the annual fees of medical undergraduate programmes.

Because of the requirement that teachers should teach only the subjects they studied to degree level, some smaller second-level schools can sometimes only offer part-time hours to teachers eg in subject areas such as Stem or modern languages. Most teachers cannot survive on a part-time salary so they emigrate or move to a job in industry where they are paid a more realistic salary. 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 or she is offered a post in the Dublin area.

The reduced starting salary for teachers (introduced in 2012) exacerbated the problem of teacher recruitment over the past few years. Now that salaries are gradually being restored, the number of applicants applying for initial teacher education programmes has increased (the numbers applying for PME programmes for the coming year has increased by more than one-third).

Exploration vs action

Some of the measures proposed in the teacher supply action plan are about to be implemented, eg the proposal to set up panels of substitute primary teachers. New four-year concurrent teacher education programmes in areas such as modern languages, mathematics and Stem subjects will be introduced in September and demand for these programmes is strong. Other proposals of the action plan are vague and are unlikely to be implemented in the immediate future, eg the proposal to “explore the provision of additional supports for postgraduate initial teacher education students” and the proposal “to explore the sharing between post-primary schools of teachers of priority areas”. Do we need further exploration? Are we not ready for action?

Given the high quality of Irish teachers, it is not surprising  some are being recruited in countries where the salary and employment conditions are considerably more attractive

There is also a proposal “to explore options to recruit teachers currently employed in other jurisdictions”. Given the high quality of Irish teachers, it is not surprising that some are being recruited to teach in countries where the salary and employment conditions are considerably more attractive than in Ireland.

We need urgent action to ensure that we continue to attract our brightest and best young people to embrace a teaching career. The solutions are not rocket science. There should be a closer match between teacher supply and demand. There should be financial incentives for students to undertake initial teacher education courses in subjects where there are shortages and for universities to provide such courses. The employment of specialised teachers should be optimised eg teachers of subjects in short supply should be guaranteed a full-time post even if this means sharing between schools. Teacher remuneration should ensure that newly qualified teachers will not emigrate or leave the system.

Realistic solutions will require some additional financial investment on the part of the Government – but the long-term return on this investment will be more than worthwhile – and our young people deserve to be taught by some of the best teachers in the world, as has been the case in the past.

Áine Hyland is emeritus professor of education at University College Cork

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