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Minister for Education Norma Foley at today's conference. Paula Malone Carty
annual conferences

'Nothing is off the table' in terms of measures to tackle teacher shortages, Foley says

Teachers unions are holding their annual conferences this week.

LAST UPDATE | Apr 2nd 2024, 6:10 PM

NOTHING IS OFF the table in terms measures to tackle the shortage of teachers in Ireland, Minister for Education Norma Foley has said.

Ahead of her appearance at the latest of this week’s teaching conferences, Foley told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that she is happy to “pursue” suggestions being put forward by teachers’ unions to address the shortages.

Teachers unions are holding their annual conferences this week. Issues being discussed will include teacher shortages and pay.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) is holding its conference in Co Wexford, while the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) is meeting in Killarney and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) is meeting in Derry.

Speaking today at the congress, Foley received a muted reception at points, but drew widespread applause at remarks condemning the bombing of children and destruction of school buildings by Israel in Gaza.

Earlier, union members were advised to treat the minister with “respect” and not engage in protest against her appearance.

While condemning the 7 October assault by Hamas, Foley said that “innocent people who had nothing with the attacks” had suffered as a result of Israel’s invasion.

She also paid tribute to teachers who demonstrated outside the conference hall, holding placards condemning Israel’s attack.

Citing UN research on the devastation wreaked on Gaza’s education system since, Foley said that “no education has happened in Gaza at all in the past six months”.

“Now is the time for humanity and now is the time for action,” she said.

Elsewhere, she touched on plans to support schools and students in different schemes.

This includes assisting schools management the administration and procurement in the forthcoming free books scheme.

“I am also conscious that procurement may seem daunting for larger post-primary schools that are tendering school-books contracts, particularly where these are higher-value contracts,” Foley told delegates.

“I want to assure you that schools will have significant support in this process,” she said.

The minister also vowed that the “era of Big Tech companies policing themselves” was at an end.

She referenced plans by Comisiún na Meán – the new media and online regulator – to develop a new online safety code, which Foley said will “cover the scourge of cyberbullying” as part of its policies.

The minister received some applause when she said: “Social media companies will have to comply with the code or face fines of up to €20 million. The era of Big Tech companies policing themselves is over.”

Staff vacancies

According to figures by the INTO, there were more than 2,000 long-term vacancies in the sector at the start of the academic year. Meanwhile, it estimates that more than 4,800 Irish teachers are working abroad.

When asked whether it is time to introduce an allowance for teachers working in urban areas, similar to London, Foley said she will take “nothing off the table”.

However, she said that if such a measure was to be implemented it would have to be done “across the board” in the public sector. 

“When people speak of a London allowance, they speak of an additional money being made available to those who are teaching and working in the London area. But if you were to look at our salaries, our salaries are greater than what is being offered, even if you include a London allowance in London,” Foley said. 

The Education Minster said there will be times where there are absences among the 75,000 teachers in the system.

“We will be proactive in this space. As I said, the various measures we’ve introduced and we will look at further and more measures,” Foley said. 

“But this is not unique to the education sector. This is an issue for a country that is near full employment that we’re going to have from time to time in various areas,” she said. 

“I don’t take away the stress that it creates on school leaders but we are being supportive as much of as far as possible. We work in a partnership environment, so suggestions that are being made to us we’re happy to pursue.”

Overseas experience

Teachers are also calling for a full recognition of experience gained overseas in non-EU countries such as in the Middle East and Australia.

However, Foley said she doesn’t want to make it “overly attractive” to Irish teachers to work abroad.

“There’s a fine line we walk here in terms of the push and pull factors,” she said.

“I’m conscious that from a primary school perspective, teachers who are working in non-EU countries, their services are recognised.

“Equally so, we have to be cognizant of making it overly attractive, for those going abroad and ensuring that there is a fairness to the 75,000 who are actually currently working here at home as well,” Foley added. 

She said is happy for the matter to be “looked at” through the Teacher Conciliation Council. 

“We need to find a balanced mechanism here as to how it is fair to all concerned,” Foley said. 

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie said the “efforts to entice people back from abroad from places like Canada and Australia has been feeble and pitiable”.

“Inviting people back next September to part-time jobs is just not going to cut it,” Christie said. 

In a statement yesterday, TUI president David Waters said that ”Ireland is far from unique in having a teacher recruitment and retention crisis”.

“This means that other education systems will increasingly seek out our highly qualified graduates unless they are incentivised to stay here. Failure to do so will undoubtedly see the crisis worsen greatly,” Waters said. 

“We’ve seen enough ‘sticking plaster’ measures from the Department – real action is now a necessity to keep teachers in front of classrooms.”

ASTI Congress reporting by Eoghan Dalton

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