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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
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VOICES
Gary Gannon Government must act immediately to address teacher shortages
The Social Democrats TD says the teacher shortage is at crisis point – he will table proposed solutions tomorrow.

THE TEACHER RECRUITMENT crisis in our primary and second-level schools did not happen overnight – it has been more than a decade in the making and is the result of flawed policy decisions by successive governments.

Even before the pandemic and cost-of-living squeeze that followed, the seeds were already sown for the serious staff shortages we are now seeing in schools.

The introduction of a lower salary scale for new entrants to the profession in 2010 marked the start of the decline. The situation was further compounded a few years later when it became more difficult – and expensive – to qualify as a teacher.

Today, our schools are paying a high price for these short-sighted decisions. The figures are grim. A recent Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) survey found that 91% of post-primary schools experienced recruitment difficulties in the past six months, while 61% reported problems with teacher retention.

Dublin’s challenges

Almost two-thirds of primary schools in the Dublin area are short-staffed, according to the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN), with neighbouring counties facing similar issues.

Nationally, more than one in four primary schools is struggling without their approved staffing allocation. There are slim pickings for schools that turn to teacher supply panels to deal with staff absences, with 62% of posts vacant in Dublin and 10% empty outside the capital.

This is putting principals under severe pressure and impacting the ability of schools to meet the day-to-day educational needs of their students.

It is of particular concern that children with additional needs are losing valuable tuition hours because of the recruitment crisis. A recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) found that 83% of schools have had no option but to redeploy special education teachers (SET) to act as substitute teachers in mainstream classes.

Meanwhile, senior members of Government appear to deny this is even an issue and simply say it ‘shouldn’t be done’. But it has to be done because principals have no choice. Speaking on RTE recently, Minster of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan said: “I’ve always made it very clear in my capacity as Minister for Special Education that no special education teacher, or SNA, should be used other than the purpose for which they were assigned.” Who is going to break it to the government that this is happening for a reason – in 83% of our schools?

Recruitment issues are leading to greater inequalities in our education system. Worryingly, some schools have had to drop subjects from the curriculum due to the lack of qualified teachers, while many substitutes are merely child-minding rather than teaching. Separately, one grind school has reported a 100% increase in demand for its courses across a range of subjects, which it attributes to teacher shortages.

This situation, if allowed to deteriorate, will inevitably mean students from wealthier backgrounds will have an even bigger academic advantage when it comes to State exams and higher education options.

This week, a principal in Dublin was forced to appeal for substitute teachers on social media, warning that schools were at “breaking point” due to staff shortages. I have heard first-hand testimonies from principals about the devastating impact the crisis is having on their schools.

What can be done?

Tomorrow, the Social Democrats will bring a Private Members’ Motion before the Dáil, calling for an urgent response to the teacher recruitment crisis.

As a starting point, we are seeking the establishment of an emergency teacher supply task force, with the involvement of all stakeholders. It is vital that teachers, school principals and trade union representatives have their voices heard as part of any proposed solutions.

We are asking Minister 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.

Barriers to taking up a career in teaching, both financial and academic, must be removed if we are to incentivise people to enter the profession. We have proposed a review of the Professional Master of Education (PME), which was increased from one to two years in 2014, with the longer duration leading to significant additional costs.

A recent study found that more than 40% of students participating in the PME are reliant on parents or partners for funding. This puts huge pressure on family finances and can cause high levels of financial stress. Since the PME was expanded, it costs at least €12,500 to complete the two-year course – this compares with €5,000 for the one-year master’s in Belfast.

Lack of affordable accommodation, particularly in Dublin where rents now average almost €2,300 a month, has been identified as a major disincentive to teachers taking up temporary posts. Addressing the underlying causes of the housing crisis must be carried out in tandem with measures to increase the supply of qualified teachers.

Steps to increase the housing supply will be key. In the short term, this can be achieved by regulating short-term letting platforms, such as Airbnb, thereby returning properties to the long-term rental market. A punitive 10% tax on vacant homes would also help increase supply, along with the acceleration of affordable purchase and cost-rental housing schemes.

It is completely unreasonable to ask a teacher to move to a new location if they don’t have a job or financial security. Our motion will also call for permanent, full-time positions to be given to teachers upon their initial appointment and for the elimination of delays for those re-registering with the Teaching Council.

Ireland’s teaching workforce is not representative of wider Irish society, with people from working class and minority backgrounds taking up few posts across the country. To this end, we are calling for the introduction of funded scholarships for candidates from minority backgrounds to allow them to pursue primary school teaching qualifications.

There are solutions the Government can adopt now which would help ameliorate this crisis. Ultimately, we need systemic reform – and for the Government to finally address our twin housing and cost-of-living crises.

Gary Gannon is a Social Democrats TD for Dublin Central and is the party’s spokesperson on Education.

VOICES

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