Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Staff

10:30 am

Marie Sherlock (Labour)
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I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, on his appointment. This Commencement matter relates to the promise of additional substitute teachers in the primary school system. I am seeking details with regard to the number of additional substitute teachers provided, their location and the ratio of substitutes to schools and the teachers in those schools. I am conscious that the Government has made a clear and welcome commitment to keeping schools open, where possible, even if we have to go to level 5.I am conscious that the Government has made a clear and welcome commitment to keeping schools open, where possible, even if we have to go to level 5. I am conscious also that there was a commitment by the Department to get the Teaching Council to contact 6,000 teachers in August, that is, 6,000 teachers who are currently registered, but are not deployed to any one school at this point in time. The reason I am asking this question is that a number of schools have contacted me, particularly in my constituency of Dublin Central, and have said that the scheme of panel substitute teachers is not working at the moment. One school in particular is operating in a panel of 15 schools, with just three substitute teachers. Therefore, when a teacher is ill, the school does not know, when it logs into the app, whether it will be able to get a substitute teacher for that particular day. The system of a substitute panel of teachers is not working at the moment. We are six weeks into the school term and it is not reasonable to wait any longer for the roll out of proper substitute panels across the country. This is simply too urgent a situation.

We are saying to teachers that if they develop any symptoms or feel ill, they should not go into school, as they would have done in the past. The fact they must absent themselves from school means we need a much more robust system of substitution, and proper provision of same.

This has been a long-standing call from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. A panel was put in place in 2019. However, to be frank, the information to date is that there is not sufficient scale in the panel of substitute teachers across the country.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for her kind comments. In respect of difficulties in filling teaching positions, the teacher supply steering group was established in March 2018 and the group is chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills. The steering group leads on the identification of issues, the development of a programme of actions on teacher supply and oversees its implementation. An implementation group supports the work of the steering group. The group is also supported in its work by a number of working groups which consider and report on particular issues. The working groups report to the implementation group.

A number of specific measures have been taken to increase the pool of available substitute teachers, including the establishment, in the 2019-2020 school year, of a substitute teacher supply panel scheme on a pilot basis. The pilot scheme has six base schools employing teachers on a fixed-term basis so as to provide substitute cover to up to 90 schools. These supply panels were set up to work alongside the existing methods of sourcing substitute teachers, whether through a school's own panel of regular substitutes or the national substitution portal service.

In July, the Department of Education and Skills published the report, Reopening Our Schools: The Roadmap for the Full Return to School, and announced a funding package of more than €370 million for schools to supports its implementation. Among the package of supports is the extension of the substitute teacher supply panel. Additional teachers are being provided to support the safe and sustainable reopening of primary schools in order to provide enhanced substitution and eliminate the need to mix classes when a teacher is absent.

The scheme has been expanded from the pilot scheme of six base schools to more than 100 base schools, providing substitute cover to approximately 2,300 schools across the country. More than 300 additional teaching posts have been allocated to this scheme. The Department has worked closely with our partners on expanding teacher supply panels. The base schools were first identified in collaboration with the INTO and primary management bodies. The INTO and primary management bodies made contact with these schools with a view to being a base for that location. In forming the supply panel clusters, the Department's geographical information system, GIS, identified the receiving schools based on distance from the base school.

The supply panel teaching posts were allocated to each supply panel based on the number of schools in the cluster and the number of permanent teaching positions to be serviced by the scheme. Currently, there are 115 substitute teacher supply panels nationwide and these panels operate in accordance with the terms and conditions as outlined in Circular 59/2019, which is available on the Department of Education and Skills website.

I will bring the particular issues raised by the Senator to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills in the context of her own particular area. I met with a deputation of teachers from my own area of Mullingar, in the context of the budgetary negotiations, and they were impressed by how the system is working in their locality. If there are teething problems or issues with the scheme, we can thrash them out, and I will gladly bring the Senator's comments to the Minister's attention.

Marie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply and for his commitment to relay my concerns directly to the Minister. The response provided did not answer my question with regard to the precise locations and the ratio of substitutes to teachers in the schools. Having 100 base schools covering 2,300 schools does not seem in any way adequate to deal with that is facing schools over the coming months. I ask the Minister of State to relay back to the Minister for Education and Skills that we need to see a much broader expansion of the panel substitute scheme if we are to provide a proper and sufficient teaching service within schools.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for her concern and for raising this important issue. I will bring back her concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills and will ask her to circulate the briefing material in terms of the bases that are already in place and the concerns the Senator has raised in her particular area.