The deteriorating Covid-19 situation in recent days has focused attention on the challenges faced by schools and teachers in ensuring adequate supplies. Yesterday, Minister Foley met with teacher education providers to examine ways in which student teachers, not unlike student nurses, taking on already unprecedented responsibilities, can address the teacher supply crisis in schools. Huh.
Even before the pandemic, it was a regular occurrence on social media to see school principals appealing for the services of substitute teachers. Often these entries were posted late at night because, apparently in despair, after exhausting all other options, a petition was filed for a registered teacher to come to the school the next day to take classes. .
While this situation has worsened during the pandemic, as we mentioned earlier in these columns (‘How can we solve the problem of teacher supply?‘, July 11, 2018 and ‘Why schools are struggling to hire teachers ahead of the new academic year‘, July 24, 2019), The fact is that the teacher supply problem has been increasing in Ireland for almost a decade.
In previous articles, we had identified several issues as the main contributing factors to the increasing shortage of teachers. The decision to reduce the starting salary for teachers (so-called low-paid teachers) in 2010 prompted many to seek employment abroad. A few years later the one-year Post Graduate Higher Diploma in Education was changed to the two-year Vocational Master of Education (PME).
While the decision to educate teachers to the master’s level reflects the widely accepted view that elementary teacher education is considered one of the most important factors in ensuring a high-performing public education system, the decision was made in haste and It lacked planning around the resource. new model.
The change meant that in 2015 the number of those who qualified as teachers following the postgraduate route was more than 1,000 less than the previous year as most teacher education institutions transitioned to a two-year programme.
Secondly, it immediately doubled the cost of acquiring a teaching qualification and increased the time taken to qualify as a post-primary teacher through that route to six years. Meanwhile, the profession has become increasingly casual and young teachers often have to wait a significant period of time before securing a full-time permanent position.
There are hardly any attractive offers after six years in university and many years in part-time positions. In addition, the promotion opportunities available to teachers at this time were also significantly reduced.
In 2012, the International Review Panel’s report on the structure of early 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 received a timely response from neither the Education Department nor the Education Council.
In 2013, Minister Rueri Quinn asked the Teaching Council to advise his department on the issue of teacher supply. An interim report released in late 2014 and a final one in 2017. Meanwhile the problem was mounting, prompting Minister Richard Bruton to establish a Teaching Supply Steering Group within the department.
This group as well as the various sub-groups established by it have done some useful work in the interim. Creation of additional places in teacher education institutions, easing of restrictions on job-partners and retired teachers taking over work, setting up 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 paucity are all useful initiatives.
However, the improvements that have taken place are limited as evident from the ongoing serious difficulties that schools are facing in filling short and long term vacancies.
Reading the minutes of the Steering Group between 2018 and May this year, it is astonishing that the fundamental underlying problems, the two tier pay scale, the cost of the PME program, the time taken to qualify as a teacher. The post-graduate route, contingency of profession and limited promotion opportunities available after qualification have not been addressed to any serious extent.
Yes, there were efforts elsewhere by the department to address some of these concerns, but there seems to have been a reluctance to acknowledge a direct link with the issue of teacher supply. Another striking feature of the Steering Group Minutes is that Richard Bruton attended all meetings of the group while minister, but none of his successors followed his example. It is pertinent to ask whether this has contributed to the limited consideration of the problem and the lack of substantial progress to date.
Population growth has shifted after the primary sector and is projected to peak by 2024. Could it be that officials are ‘playing for time’ in the hope that the situation will resolve itself at that point?
If so, then this is a very wrong approach. Recent weeks have focused on the lack of teachers available to act as substitutes for colleagues absent because of COVID 19, but the problems are more fundamental than this. There is a clear shortage of qualified teachers in many subject areas, and as a result schools after primary school reluctantly remove valuable subjects from their curriculum.
In many cases, if a teacher goes on extended leave, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to replace him with a suitably qualified person. In the case of compulsory subjects also the situation is quite dire. Recent research by Marilyn Goos and colleagues at the University of Limerick, published in Irish Educational Studies, indicates that a substantial proportion of those who teach mathematics lack the appropriate qualifications. They estimate this figure to be around 25 per cent which is an improvement over the earlier survey, but still not satisfactory. Certainly, children and youth deserve to be taught by a fully qualified professional.
time to act
COVID-19 has focused on the crisis of teacher supply and the need for a quick, appropriate response. The underlying problems of contingencies and poor publicity prospects must be addressed in time for the next academic year.
Fund should be given to teacher education institutions to waive the fees of two students of PME year. Real and practical inducements must be offered to those working abroad or in other occupations to encourage them to return to the profession.
Due to the changes made in the pay structure, the low paid teacher issue may no longer be as negative a factor as it once was in relation to teacher supply. However, it represents an ongoing pain in the profession and a return to normal basic scale is guaranteed.
Professor Judith Harford and Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, UCD.