Why schools are struggling to hire teachers ahead of the new academic year
Opinion: The Government’s action plan to tackle teacher supply is not going far enough to address acute classroom shortages. Far more ambition and urgency is required
Yet again this summer post-primary schools (as well as those in the primary sector) are experiencing significant difficulties in filling teaching positions.
In some cases, advertisements for posts have attracted no qualified applicants. In others, so few have applied that selection boards are faced with making a less than ideal appointment or making no appointment at all.
Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. A scarcity of qualified teachers across a wide range of subjects has represented a challenge for almost a decade. The three main underlying factors at play which have led to this now unsustainable situation are easily identifiable.
The decision in December 2010 to introduce a lower salary scale for newly appointed teachers is at the heart of the teacher supply crisis.
Some progress has been made in recent times to remediate this problem but, as of yet, the common basic salary scale has not been restored.
The ongoing casualisation of the profession, whereby teachers are employed on less than full-time contracts, has also threatened the status of the profession, and thus impacted on the attractiveness of teaching as a career.
Understandably, the likelihood that after up to six years studying to become a teacher most have little chance of being offered a full-time permanent contract has diverted those who might have previously considered teaching as a profession towards other professions and employment routes.
Finally, the reconceptulisation and extension by an additional year of the teacher education programme to master’s level also immediately doubled the cost of securing the qualification.
The move to a master’s level teacher education programme also meant that in the year the changeover took effect (2015), the numbers qualifying as teachers following the post-graduate route dropped dramatically amounting to a loss of approximately 1,000 teachers.
Additional factors have added to the complexity of the situation, but not to the same extent, such as the withdrawal of teachers from schools to work for the Department of Education and the State Examinations Commission.
For almost a decade the authorities, both the department and the Teaching Council, have allowed the situation to become more critical without taking any meaningful action.
Eventually in March of last year the Minister established the Teacher Supply Steering Group to examine the issue. Subsequently, the group appointed an implementation group which, in turn, established four sub-groups to consider particular aspects of the problem.
All of this activity resulted in the publication of an action plan in November 2018 detailing 22 steps which were to be implemented, 19 of which cover post-primary education.
Of these, four are designed to promote teaching as a career choice and facilitate applicants; two outline consultation to be undertaken with stakeholders; one promises a review of teacher education programmes; five commit to the provision of additional places in teacher education; and two call for the creation of guidelines to cover the situation when student teachers are on school placement.
Action is promised in the case of teachers on job-share, their colleagues on career break, those seeking registration and steps to make it easier for schools to share teachers.
A particularly vague action point refers to the fact that the department will “explore the provision of additional supports for postgraduate initial teacher education students.”
Clearly, this is a key issue, and a more detailed, convincing action in this regard would have been useful.
The remaining actions are all likely to result in an increase in the numbers joining the profession, but they are not going to produce enough of a change to really address the current acute shortage.
The limited nature of the action plan hardly justifies the time and expense of involving so many senior public servants in producing it.
Reading accounts of the meetings of the Teacher Supply Steering Group, it is striking to see that while the cost of the professional master of education (PME) was identified as a major issue at the first meeting of the committee, over subsequent meetings, cost was replaced by nebulous concerns around access.
Even more extraordinary is the fact that there is no record of any discussion taking place regarding the two principal causes of the teacher supply crisis: the two-tier pay scale and casualisation of the profession.
It is also significant that in the eight months leading up to the publication of the action plan (November 2018), there were five meetings of the teacher supply group.
A further eight months have passed since then during which there have only been two meetings of the steering group.
Problem not solved
All of this suggests that the authorities think the problem is solved when clearly this is not the case.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the complexities of school timetabling knows that the announcement in February 2019 that schools will be allowed share teachers in priority subjects will have little impact and will be almost impossible to realise.
It is of fundamental importance that our pupils are taught by teachers who are fully qualified in whatever subject they are requested to teach. To bring that about the current severe shortage of suitable applicants for various positions needs to be immediately addressed.
In these columns a year ago we suggested a number of decisive steps which we believed were needed.
Once again, we reiterate these key strategies as fundamental to addressing the ongoing teacher supply crisis:
* The common basic salary scale must be restored as an essential first step;
* Boards of management and ETBs (Education and Training Boards) should be instructed to fill posts in a permanent wholetime capacity where the needs of the students, curricular requirements and enrolment in the school justify such appointments;
* Exchequer funding should be made available to higher education institutions to grant a waiver of fees for year two PME students. This provision should apply for the next three years across all subject areas;
The urgency in implementing these strategies cannot be over-estimated.
Professor Judith Harford is Professor of Education and Vice Principal for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Dr Brian Fleming is a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Education UCD.