Our teacher supply problem isn’t new – it’s been growing for almost a decade


The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in recent days has shifted the focus to schools and the challenges they face in ensuring an adequate supply of teachers. Yesterday, Minister Foley met with teacher education providers to examine ways in which student teachers, who not unlike student nurses are already carrying unprecedented responsibilities, could remediate the teacher supply crisis in schools.

Even prior to the pandemic, it was a regular occurrence to see appeals on social media from school principals seeking the services of substitute teachers. Often these entries were posted late at night as the principal, clearly in despair, having exhausted all other options, made a plea for a registered teacher to arrive in the school the following day to take classes.

While this situation has been exacerbated during the pandemic, as we have pointed out previously in these columns (‘How can we solve the teacher supply problem?’, July 11th, 2018 and ‘Why schools are struggling to hire teachers ahead of the new academic year’, July 24th, 2019), the fact of the matter is that there has been a growing teacher supply problem in Ireland for almost a decade.

Starting salary

In previous articles, we identified a number of issues as the main contributory factors to the increasing shortage of teachers. The decision in 2010 to reduce the starting salary for teachers (the so-called lesser paid teacher) led many to seek employment abroad. Some years later the one-year post-graduate higher diploma in education was changed to a two-year professional master of education (PME).

Whilst the decision to educate teachers to master’s level reflected the widely accepted view that initial teacher education is considered one of the most important factors in ensuring a high-performing public education system, the decision was rushed and there was a lack of planning around resourcing this new model.

The change meant that in 2015 the number who qualified as teachers following the post-graduate route was over 1,000 less than in the previous year as most teacher education institutions transitioned to the two-year programme.

Secondly, it immediately doubled the cost of securing a teaching qualification and increased to six years the time it takes to qualify as a post-primary teacher through that route. In the meantime, the profession has become increasingly casualised and young teachers often have to wait a significant period of time before they secure a full-time permanent position.

Six years in university followed by several years in part-time positions is hardly an attractive proposition. Furthermore, the promotional opportunities available to teachers were at this time also significantly scaled back.

Response

In 2012, the Report of the International Review Panel on the Structure of Initial Teacher Provision in Ireland, (known as the Sahlberg Report), commented on the failure to address the issue of teacher supply in this country. This key observation did not elicit a timely response from either the Department of Education or the Teaching Council.

In 2013, Minister Ruairí Quinn asked the Teaching Council to advise his department on the teacher supply issue. An interim report issued at the end of 2014 and a final one in 2017. Meanwhile the problem was escalating prompting Minister Richard Bruton to set up a Teaching Supply Steering Group within the department.

This group, as well as various sub-groups it established, have undertaken some useful work in the interim. The creation of additional places in teacher education institutions, relaxing restrictions on job-sharers and retired teachers undertaking additional work, the establishment of substitute teacher supply panels, expediting the teacher registration process for newly qualified teachers and those working abroad, and the provision of upskilling opportunities for teachers in subject areas where there is a scarcity are all useful initiatives.

However, the improvements that have resulted are limited as is clear from the ongoing serious difficulties schools continue to face in filling both short and long-term vacancies.

Problems

Reading the minutes of the steering group between 2018 and May of this year, it is striking that the fundamental underlying problems, the two-tier salary scale, the cost of the PME programme, the length of time it takes to qualify as a teacher under the post-graduate route, the casualisation of the profession and the limited promotional opportunities available post-qualification, have not been addressed to any serious extent.

Yes, efforts were made elsewhere by the department to address some of these concerns, but it seems there was an unwillingness to admit a direct link with the teacher supply issue. Another striking feature of the steering group minutes is that Richard Bruton attended all meetings of the group when he was minister but neither of his successors followed his example. It is reasonable to ask whether or not this has contributed to the limited consideration of the problem and lack of sufficient progress to date.

Peak

The population bulge has moved into the post-primary sector and is projected to peak by 2024. Can it be that the authorities are ‘playing for time’ in the hope that the position will at that point have resolved itself?

If so, it’s a very misguided approach. The focus in recent weeks has been on the lack of available teachers to act as substitutes for colleagues absent because of Covid 19, but the problems are more fundamental than that. There is a clear lack of qualified teachers in a range of subject areas, and this has resulted in post-primary schools reluctantly dropping valuable subjects from their curricula.

In many cases if a teacher goes out on extended leave it is difficult and sometimes impossible to replace him/her with a suitably qualified person. Even in the case of obligatory subjects, the position is quite stark. Recent research by Merrilyn Goos and her colleagues at the University of Limerick published in Irish Educational Studies indicates that a substantial proportion of those teaching mathematics lack the appropriate qualifications. They estimate the figure to be about 25 per cent which is an improvement on a survey carried out previously, but still far from satisfactory. Surely, children and young people are entitled to be taught by a fully qualified professional.

Time to act

Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the crisis of teacher supply and the need for a swift, appropriate response. The underlying problems of casualisation and poor promotional prospects should be addressed in time for the next academic year.

Teacher education institutions should be funded to waive the fees for year two PME students. Real and practical inducements should be offered to encourage those working in schools abroad or in other occupations here to return to the profession.

Because of changes made to salary structures, the lesser paid teacher issue may no longer be the negative factor to the same extent as it once was in relation to teacher supply. However, it represents a running sore in the profession and a return to the common basic scale is warranted.

Professor Judith Harford änd Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, UCD.



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