‘Crisis’ due to mismatch of teachers and subjects

Universities and colleges which train second-level teachers will be required to better regulate the numbers qualifying to teach certain subjects, following criticisms of an historic lack of planning.

However, any changes to how prospective teachers are selected to better match supply with demand may take years, despite second-level school managers’ recent warnings that they are “beyond crisis” trying to find language teachers.

Education Minister Richard Bruton said consultations are to begin soon between colleges, the Teaching Council — which regulates the profession and qualifications — and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). He yesterday published a report from a working group of the council, commissioned by previous minister Ruairi Quinn in 2013 and received by Mr Bruton’s department 18 months ago.

The report is critical of what it describes as the “current unregulated freedom” of initial teacher education (ITE) providers to recruit student-teachers without trying to balance output with the particular needs of second-level schools.

“The [working group] recognises and respects the right of providers to select students for programmes of teacher education,” the report states. “However, if this results in a shortfall of subject teachers and if some subjects are not recruiting sufficient teachers, there is a need to plan more carefully to ensure that the needs of students in Irish schools can be met,” it said.

The report highlighted the enormous difficulty getting accurate data about numbers teaching particular subjects in schools, as distinct from the numbers qualified to teach them. However, it points to over-supply of teachers of subjects like English, geography and history, while schools are struggling to fill vacancies for teachers of Irish, home economics, and continental languages.

Mr Bruton said he has asked Department of Education officials to consider how a system can be developed to satisfy the crucial need for a more reliable supply of teachers to meet the needs of schools. He said the Teaching Council will meet shortly with all third-level colleges to consider how a more targeted and co-ordinated approach could be adopted, with the outcome of those deliberations to inform future progress.

Around three quarters of second-level teachers qualify from the four National University of Ireland colleges —NUI Galway, Maynooth University, University College Cork, and University College Dublin. When applicants are being selected for their post-graduate teaching courses, which became a two-year masters in 2014, the subjects they wish to teach have no impact on the process.

The discussions about to begin will not have any short-term impact, but Mr Bruton said more immediate measures could include efforts to ensure more retired teachers stay registered with the Teaching Council, making them available to fill short-term vacancies.

The issue of substitute teachers was identified by the working group as a major issue at primary level where, the report said, informal arrangements for schools to locate substitutes are less than effective. It projects that the equivalent of around 5,000 full-time teachers is needed annually to provide substitution cover for primary schools, but says not all absences could be covered unless a more efficient mechanism to identify and employ subs is developed.

As well as causing problems for schools, current arrangements make it difficult for teachers to earn sustainable incomes from substitution work.

“Most importantly, there is a risk that this dysfunction can have a negative impact on the quality of pupil learning,” the working group reported.

It also cautioned that, while current output levels from primary teaching degrees may be sufficient to meet rising enrolments, any plans to reduce pupil-teacher ratios would need to be done incrementally to avoid teacher shortages.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation repeated its call on the Department of Education to establish panels of substitute teachers who would be available to cover teacher absences in their area on short notice.

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