Minister for Education currently on a career break, Dáil hears

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald ‘gobsmacked’ that Norma Foley’s is to cut career breaks while she is on one herself

No decision has been taken in relation to a proposal to cut career breaks for teachers, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

He told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that it was “unfair and incorrect” for her to say that it was the Government’s first response to the teacher shortage crisis.

It emerged last night that the Government is considering cutting career breaks which teachers can take for up to five years, a proposal that provoked a wave of criticism from teachers’ unions and opposition TDs.

Ms McDonald said “I was shocked, gobsmacked in fact, to hear that the Minister for Education’s first response to this was a suggestion of cancelling career breaks for teachers.


“And not least because the minister herself is on a career break from teaching. Clearly that is not the answer,” she said.

Ms Foley, a secondary schoolteacher, took a career break when she was elected a TD in the 2020 general election and appointed as Minister for Education.

Mr Martin told the Sinn Féin leader it was “unfair and I think incorrect for the Deputy to say that the first response” was to consider cutting career breaks. “No decision has been made in relation to that” and there had been a whole range of initiatives taken to deal with the crisis.

These included the temporary suspension of the limits on substitute work by teachers on career break. He said third and fourth year undergraduate teaching students can now register with the Teaching Council under new regulations and more than 2,100 students have applied so far.

A waiver of pension abatement is in place for retired teachers returning to work for up to 50 days and post-primary teachers will be allowed to teach in their subject area over the usual limit of 22 hours per week. Mr Martin also said free upskilling programmes are available for registered teachers.

Asked about the issue, a Department of Education spokesman said: “Minister Foley is on a career break and is cognisant that career breaks are used for a variety of valid reasons such as family care or to avail of other professional opportunities.

“It is important to note that there are no proposals on the table to eliminate career breaks but rather to evaluate current non statutory leave, and to consider whether temporary and modest amendments to these leave schemes could support teacher supply. No decision has been made or will be made without consultation with the partners in education.”

Mr Martin and Ms McDonald were commenting following debate on a Social Democrats private member’s motion.

The party’s education spokesman Gary Gannon warned that the education system “is broken” and “verging on collapse”.

He said “we’ve been watching our schools slide deeper into turmoil” under the Government’s watch.

Introducing the motion Mr Gannon called for the establishment of an emergency teacher supply taskforce, with the involvement of all stakeholders.

“We are asking Minister Norma Foley to work with higher education institutes to increase the numbers of third and fourth-year student teachers, and master’s students, engaging in substitution work. We also believe that teachers in training should be paid for their work in placement schools.”

Mr Gannon highlighted a recent Teachers’ Union of Ireland survey that found 91 per cent of post-primary schools experienced recruitment difficulties in the past six months, while 61 per cent reported problems with teacher retention.

Almost two-thirds of primary schools in the Dublin area are short-staffed, with Wicklow and Kildare facing similar issues, he said. Mr Gannon said teachers could not afford to move to Dublin and the east coast to teach because of high rental costs.

A recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network found 83 per cent of schools had no option but to redeploy special education teachers to plug gaps in mainstream classes.

Mr Gannon said “it is an outrage that children with additional needs are losing valuable tuition hours because of the recruitment crisis – we are failing those who need support the most”.

The problem had been developing for years as the Government “broke the social contract”.

Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy said “the solution to the staffing crisis is never to strip away the terms and conditions staff enjoy”. She said those terms and conditions for teachers not in permanent posts are “already on the floor”.

“These teachers are not paid over holiday periods and they are paid the bare minimum of sick pay. Career breaks were introduced to attract staff to the profession,” she said.

Minister of State for Education Josepha Madigan said the use of special education teaching hours was “an exceptional measure” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Madigan, who has responsibility for special needs, responded to claims that children with special needs were losing tuition because of the teacher shortage.

She said “it was an urgent measure of last resort, following public health advice and was not intended to be available on an ongoing basis due to the potential to impact negatively on students with special needs”.

The Minister also told the Dáil that while the teacher crisis was spoken of as a “recruitment and retention problem, the evidence does not support this”.

She said the number of teachers registered with the Teaching Council has more than doubled to over 116,000 since its establishment and demand at undergraduate level remains high.

Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said there were 15 or 20 possible solutions to deal with the crisis including offering more permanent contracts to teachers, or offering teachers coming back from the UK to compete their training in Ireland.

But instead the Department of Education had to root around “the back of the couch” to come up with a solution to cut career breaks for teachers.

Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Riordáin said a teacher had told him that “whatever the Government come up with, you can be quite sure that their plan will put the blame on teachers. And sure enough”, the Government had “done it again” and blamed teachers, but proposing cutting career breaks.

Independent Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín said the Government is “presiding over the corrosion of the education system in this country, that is having a material and negative effect on this generation of students”.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith highlighted the case of a “brilliant” Pakistani teacher working in Our Lady of Lourdes College at Goldenbridge and loved by her pupils lose her job because her visa is under review for renewal.

She said the departments of Education and Justice are not talking to each other in a row over how the school advertises the teaching position.

Solidarity TD Mick Barry said that when there was a problem with recruiting senior bankers the Government’s solution was to lift the pay cap but with the teacher shortage crisis its solution was to cut their career breaks.

Rural Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath said he did not agree with Mr Barry on much but totally supported what he said about the divergent Government attitude to bankers and teachers.

Independent Sligo-Leitrim TD Marian Harkin said the crisis meant that pupils “are being minded instead of taught”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times