As part of the government’s plan to make the Irish education and training service the best in Europe within a decade, we have prioritized investment in education with total investment in education up by €1 Billion since I was appointed Minister.
Teachers and principals play a vital role in Irish Society. The quality of our teachers and leaders is the number one factor which will influence the outcome for the child. We are lucky in Ireland to have such a professional teaching profession.
Concerns have been expressed in recent times about teacher supply issues. Primary schools have reported a difficulty in recruiting substitute teachers to cover for short term or temporary absences. Post primary schools have reported a difficulty in recruiting teachers in certain subject areas.
Before I set out how I believe my Department can respond to these difficulties, I think it is important to make a number of points.
We are creating more new teacher positions now than at any other time in the history of the state.
Additional investment provided by government has allowed me to successfully recruit over 5,000 additional net new teachers in the last two years.
Since 2012/2013, there are 8,900 more teachers working in our schools. No other part of the public service has seen this sort of employment growth in recent years. This is testament to the government’s commitment to and the importance of education to fulfilling our national ambitions.
In terms of graduation numbers, the number of graduates from initial teacher training colleges have also remained constant. In the last 5 years:
- Over 8,000 primary school teachers have graduated from initial teacher education
- Over 7,800 second level teachers have graduated from initial teacher education
In 2018, it is estimated that approximately 1,870 primary teachers will graduate and 1,523 post primary teachers will graduate. This is in line with graduate levels in recent years.
However, I fully acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed in recent times about teacher supply.
The large expansion in the number of permanent jobs being created and which are available to our newly qualified primary teachers have had the knock on impact that schools are finding it more difficult to fill shorter term gaps and to recruit substitute teachers.
I am therefore announcing some actions which I believe will help address this immediate challenge. My Department will announce to schools today (Friday) that we are suspending the restrictions regarding substitution limits for those on a career break. This is a temporary measure which we will keep under review. It will provide immediate assistance to schools finding it difficult to recruit.
My Department will also issue a note to schools today emphasising that a career break should not be granted unless the school is in a position to fill the temporary vacancy that would be created. I know that schools and boards of management will take seriously their responsibility in this area.
While a career break is an important option, it is a discretionary scheme which requires the approval of the school. It has the effect of replacing a permanent position in a school with a temporary one, where a school is left in a position where it can only offer a 1 year temporary contract to prospective candidates. This is not appealing to many teachers given the large number of permanent jobs which are available.
It is worth saying that the purpose of the career break scheme, as set out on my Department’s website, is to facilitate personal development, voluntary service overseas, childcare or self-employment. These are important and worthwhile. However, its purpose is not to facilitate someone taking another fulltime job, while retaining the right to return to their former teaching job at any point for up to 5 years. If this was to happen, it would be very unfair as it would deprive another teacher of the possibility of gaining a permanent contract in that school. Neither was it the intention of this scheme to facilitate people going on a career break very shortly after being appointed. In the interests of education provision for pupils, a career break should not be granted unless the school is in a position to fill the temporary vacancy that would be created. I know that schools and boards of management will take seriously their responsibility in this area.
I hope that these measure can help alleviate some immediate pressures being faced in the primary school sector. I am committed to continuing to work with stakeholders to consider what other options can provide assistance to schools.
While the IPPN represent Irish Primary Principals, I think it is important to briefly mention teacher supply issues at second level given recent media coverage.
Indeed, in addressing teacher supply issues at second level, I believe we can learn lessons from how we manage it at primary level.
Since the foundation of the state, the Department of Education and Skills has managed teacher supply at primary level. We have controlled the number of courses and the number of places in publicly funded HEIs. This has not generally been the case at second level where higher education institutions have had autonomy to decide on the enrolment of students seeking to become second level teachers. This is not a sustainable approach in the context of our ambitions in STEM, in foreign languages and in digital, and in the context of my overall ambition to have the best education and training service in Europe. Each of these strategies committed to taking action to address the supply of teachers in these areas.
The present system has operated without reference to the demand which might or might not exist for certain subject teachers, or to whether some subjects are in over-supply or some in shortage. The “Striking the Balance” Report said that “providers do not endeavour to balance provision against the future needs of Irish schools and, importantly, the future needs of Irish learners”. This is a problem which must be addressed. However, we must recognise, as the Teaching Council did in Striking the Balance, that managing teacher supply at second level is far more complex than at primary, given the multiplicity of subject choices.
We must ensure that teacher supply at second level matches demand across the range of subjects. This change in approach will be particularly important as population growth increases the number of second level teachers needed and that we can respond to subject need.
The system for how places on PME courses are allocated needs to be looked at. The use of a points system, together with a single rank order of all graduates, regardless of discipline, could militate against getting teachers in the subjects where we need them.
In order to address this, we are considering how to introduce subject quotas, targeted at areas of shortage, for those undertaking the second level PME and the undergraduate concurrent. In the context of schools reporting a shortage of teachers in STEM, in Irish and in foreign languages, it will attract students to areas of need and make it easier for schools to fill positions, by providing a guarantee of a certain number of places in each of these areas. It would be in the best interests of schools and learners for this approach to be adopted.
In addition to the PME, I believe that the undergraduate route to becoming a second level teacher is a very good option for students as it is shorter and less expensive for the student. It is an increasingly popular route and should be expanded and targeted at areas of shortage. The numbers applying for this option are significantly more than apply to train as primary school teacher, but the number of places available is significantly less. In 2017, over 5,300 applied for this option through the CAO (a 13% increase since 2012). I want to see this option expanded significantly in the coming years, with the number of places on courses doubling, together with the range of courses expanding into new subject areas and an appropriate mix of subjects being provided. The increase in the number of places available on these undergraduate teacher training courses needs to start immediately in critical subject areas.
We are considering how to introduce “top up” or conversion courses to upskill existing teachers to teach in subject areas of shortage. This was supported by Striking the Balance which said that “additional “top-up” and / or conversion courses for any teachers whose qualifications do not fit the current profile of need could reduce or alleviate any areas of concern”. Good work has already taken place using this approach to the upskilling of teachers of maths.
I recognise that the changes now being considered will pose a particular challenge for the Higher Education Institutions in relation to their existing arrangements for provision in this area. I look forward to working with them as key stakeholders in finding solutions to the pressing national objectives which we are tackling here.
I will shortly be announcing the establishment of a Teacher Supply Steering Group to consider teacher supply issues at primary and post primary. This group will bring together the various players, including my own officials, the Teaching Council and the Higher Education Institutions. It is important that we get the stakeholders who have first-hand experience of the issues which are being discussed, and have much knowledge to share to work with us in developing the strategies to deliver our ambitions in STEM, foreign languages and digital, and to ensure that the supply of teachers at second level meets the level of demand.
While the numbers graduating from initial teacher education have remained constant in recent years, and the number of people applying for primary school teaching (both undergraduate and postgraduate), and the number of people applying for second level teaching at undergraduate level, has remained constant, I acknowledge the fall in applications to the second level PME. Once established, the Teacher Supply Steering Group (TSSG) will urgently consider this issue. I will be asking the TSSG how the PME can be made more attractive and I will also consider whether we can use financial incentives to improve the uptake of certain courses.
The Teaching Council have been a good partner in working to develop solutions to teacher supply issues. I commend them for their work on “Striking the Balance” which offers a good exploration of the issue. I believe that the Teaching Council have an important role to play in working with my Department. While acknowledging the role of the Council as the body responsible for setting standards and its role as the gatekeeper for the profession, in 2018 I will ask the Teaching Council to:
- Review subject criteria and processes for assessing out of state qualifications, including further engagement with the Migrant Teacher Project
- Engage more with graduate fairs, and final year students
Separately, I will be working with employers, school management bodies and higher education institutions to achieve progress in this space.
I am keen that in approaching this issue that we can work with all stakeholders in the best interests of schools and learners.