Dáil debates

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Staff

9:42 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht bheith anseo chun an ábhar dáiríre seo a phlé linn. I thank the Minister for being here. I understand she has a meeting later today with the stakeholders to discuss this very important issue. It is an issue that is escalating quite significantly. The Minister will be aware of its seriousness but for the benefit of the House and the record, I will say that we have a severe crisis in teacher supply at present in both primary and post-primary schools. In my view, this is primarily caused by the cost-of-living crisis, which is at its most severe particularly in Dublin but also in the other major urban centres. Teachers, particularly lower-paid younger teachers, cannot afford the rental costs and have very little prospect of being able to manage a mortgage in those big urban centres. There are multiple examples here in Dublin in particular. In Coolmine Community School, the school has had to take a decision not to offer subjects such as woodwork and metalwork and has had to combine classes for other subjects. This situation is replicated in other schools. Members may have seen the situation in St. James's Primary School in Dublin city on the "Six One News" a number of nights ago, where on 28 November, three teachers were out sick but only one substitute teacher could be found, leading to a number of classes being combined. St James's is also a base school for the supply panels. I am very supportive of supply panels as an idea but because of the existing supply issues, they are under-resourced. The school advertised for a position on that supply panel but absolutely no applications came in; there were zero applications. Some 60% of spaces on the supply panels in Dublin are vacant.

Fundamentally, this is about housing. I appreciate the Minister is the Minister for Education but she has a collective responsibility for the housing situation and I hope she can use her voice at Cabinet to try to address that. While the Minister cannot address all these issues on her own, are there things the Department of Education can do, in and of itself? I believe there are and they need to be considered. I acknowledge that some of these actions have been taken but there are others. At post-primary level in particular, it is about the creation of additional positions. We have too many teachers who are on insecure temporary contracts and who are underemployed. That is a key part of addressing the supply issue at this level. At primary level, there are similar issues. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the requirement for teachers who trained in Britain to complete their induction in Britain was waived by the Department. Something similar should be examined here and I ask the Minister to look at that at today's meeting. Foremost, I ask the Minister to examine the following.

This Christmas hundreds of teachers will return home from Britain, Scotland and the Middle East. They would love to be teaching here in Ireland but they cannot be offered a permanent position after 1 October at post-primary level and 1 November at primary level. If these teachers want to stay at home after Christmas their best chance is to take a temporary contract until the summer, go without pay over the summer months and then take their chances on getting a permanent position or a contract of indefinite duration in September. Would it not be far better, as was the case until approximately eight years ago, if the Department could allow permanent contracts to be offered to them? This would mean those teachers returning from Dubai, England or wherever could come home and be offered a permanent job and get paid over the summer. They would stay in the system. Will the Minister look at this? Can we offer permanent jobs to the hundreds of teachers, and perhaps more than this, who are working abroad at present?

9:52 am

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I am very aware that primary and post-primary schools are experiencing challenges in recruiting substitute teachers. Newly qualified teachers, however, represent an additional source of supply for substitute and full-time posts in 2022 and 2023, with more than 3,600 primary and post-primary newly qualified teachers registered with the Teaching Council.

Significant additional posts have been allocated to the primary substitute teacher supply panels in areas where significant challenges in sourcing substitution continue. This brings the total to 610 posts on 151 panels covering more than 2,840 schools. These panels were introduced as a pilot from 2019 and have significantly expanded since their introduction. While these panels work very effectively in many instances and are fully staffed in more than 90% of cases outside of Dublin I am conscious there is always room for improvement. To this end I have asked officials to review fully the operation of the supply panels. I have asked them to consider whether their use could be made more effective to support schools and whether additional measures could be taken to recruit teachers where there are vacancies.

We have taken steps to alleviate some of the substitute supply pressures faced by schools. For the current school year job-sharing teachers may be employed to work in a substitute capacity. The limit on substitute work applying to teachers on career break has been suspended. Third and fourth year student teachers can register with the Teaching Council. More than 2,100 student teachers have applied for registration in this respect. Once registered, student teachers can be employed by a school to cover substitution of vacancies. As an example, approximately 800 second year Hibernia College professional master of education students have completed their latest school placement block and are available to the school system for the coming weeks.

At post-primary level the Department has recently put in place a scheme that allows teachers to teach additional hours in their subject area over the usual 22-hour limit, up to a maximum of 20 additional hours per term. Retired teachers who maintain their Teaching Council registration can also provide substitute cover. The Department has agreed a waiver of abatement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for such teachers for up to 50 days in each of the three calendar years from 2021 to 2023, inclusive. The Department also runs a comprehensive programme of work to support the supply of teachers and engages closely with school management bodies and other education stakeholders to inform this work. Today the national consultative forum on teacher supply, co-hosted by the Teaching Council and the Department of Education, is meeting as the Deputy referenced. This will include all of the key stakeholders in this area.

Higher education institutions have developed new four-year initial teacher education programmes in a number of post-primary priority subject areas, including Irish, maths, computer science and modern foreign languages. In addition, the Department fully funds teachers to participate in upskilling programmes in maths, physics and Spanish. The first cohort of participants, approximately 170 teachers, is expected to graduate from these programmes this year and more than 300 teachers will graduate in 2023. We are also commencing the development of new upskilling programmes in other target subject areas, such as Irish. The Department also has a scheme to allow post-primary schools to share teachers, the aim of which is to recruit teachers in high-demand subjects and give teachers a full-time teaching contract. I strongly urge schools to explore this option as a means of supporting recruitment. These measures are underpinned by the Teaching Transforms campaign which promotes the teaching profession and encourages students to follow a career in teaching. The campaign is supported by the dedicated webpage on gov.ie.

It is acknowledged that despite these important actions, which have helped to some extent, work remains to be done to address the teacher supply challenge, particularly to ensure the availability of sufficient substitute teachers. The Department of Education will continue to work closely and intensively with stakeholders on this important matter.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister. I have acknowledged that some actions have been taken, albeit more in the primary area than the post-primary area. The Minister has acknowledged that despite these actions, which have helped to some extent, work remains to be done to address the teacher supply challenge and particularly to ensure the availability of sufficient substitute teachers. I imagine these actions have made some difference but, as the Minister said, they are clearly not fully addressing the problem that exists.

I note with a little concern mention of reviewing the supply panels. I am not sure there is any need to review them. The only thing wrong with the supply panels is that it is not possible to do the miracle of the loaves and fishes. There are just not enough to go around. They are a good idea. They are something sought for some time by the INTO. If there is a bean counter in the Department encouraging the Minister to think they are not great or not the best use of our money I encourage her to push back against it. It is a good idea provided there are enough teachers coming through to them. The problem, particularly in urban areas, is that younger teachers and newly qualified teachers cannot afford to live and work in Dublin. This is the fundamental problem. I urge her to engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The fundamental issue is the cost of housing. This is why teachers choose to go abroad and teach outside of the major cities. The Minister has a responsibility in this regard.

More particularly, I would like a response from the Minister on the following matter. I have made a number of suggestions, including a particular suggestion regarding teachers coming from abroad. Will the Minister look at this and allow them to work, if not permanently then perhaps for a couple of years? It was the case until eight years ago that teachers could be offered a permanent contract after 1 October or 1 November, depending on whether they were at post-primary or primary level. It makes perfect sense. It is challenging to compete with areas such as the Middle East where teachers can be offered high wages. The least we should be able to do is to offer those teachers a permanent position and to be paid over the summer. Otherwise we are asking them to take their chances if they want to stay here after Christmas. I am not sure they will do this.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. I appreciate his active engagement on this and his acknowledgement that many initiatives have been introduced to mitigate where there are issues. Notwithstanding this, I absolutely accept there are particular challenges in some areas more so than others. The significant action that has been taken ensures that, for example, we have the third and fourth year students coming onstream. We have more than 1,700 of them now registered. As we speak, if we were to take one higher education institute as an example, more than 800 students are now available from Hibernia for substitution. We have looked at retired teachers and provided the abatement for them. More than 800 of them have made themselves available for substitution work. We have lifted the restrictions on those job sharing and on career break. As the Deputy is aware, post-primary teachers can work additional hours.

The Deputy referenced the review of the operation of the panels. No one knows more so than me the importance of having extended these panels. In 2019 there were six panels. Over the past two years this has increased to 151. This has been a very positive move. However, I am fair enough to acknowledge that clearly there are issues for some of the panels. It is important that we do a full review of how the panels are implemented and what potential there is to do things differently as we go forward. I understand the value of the panels and I want them to work better and more efficiently. Perhaps there is scope going forward.

I also want to acknowledge, and we need to look at it in the round, that significant development and enhancement in education has taken place in the past two years. Over the past three budgets I have consistently reduced the pupil-teacher ratio to an historic low of 23:1. This has meant more teachers are being employed. We have administrative leave days for teaching principals. This means more teachers are being employed. Equally, where there are two special classes in a school there is automatic installation of administrative principal status. This means more teachers are being employed. More and more teachers are coming into the system. Obviously we have to look at the issue of substitution.

We have made significant strides in initiatives in that regard. There is a meeting today and there will be more throughout the week. We are open to looking at everything that might address the issue.