Making religion an optional subject for students at hundreds of second-level schools has forced trainee teachers to look for work abroad, an educationalist has warned.

Education Minister Richard Bruton announced in February that community schools and multi-denominational schools run by education and training boards (ETBs) must offer all students an option to take a different subject instead of religion.

The move is expected by schools to result in thousands of students choosing alternative subjects, particularly those in fifth and sixth year who want an additional Leaving Certificate subject.

Anne Looney, dean of Dublin City University’s Institute of Education, said the work of a recently-formed task force to put together data and policies around teacher supply comes too late for hundreds of her students.

She told the Oireachtas Education Committee that DCU has over 300 students being prepared to teach religious education at second-level, with either English, history, or music.

“When they woke up to the recent announcement by the Department about new arrangements for the teaching of religious education in ETB schools, it sent them online looking for international options, as the jobs they expected to move into... appeared to have been swept away,” said Ms Looney.

She said all future developments in the education system, including new subjects or reducing pupil-teacher ratios, must consider the impact on teacher supply that is not always obvious.

The same move is the subject of possible non-cooperation by members of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) over concerns that Mr Bruton does not plan to give any extra resources for schools to provide alternative subjects at times religion is timetabled as an option.

At the same committee meeting yesterday, TUI president Joanne Irwin said the crisis around recruitment and retention of teachers emerged since those reduced pay arrangements were introduced for new entrants to the job from 2011.

She said it was exacerbated by removal of qualifications allowances in 2012 and the addition of a year to the length of the postgraduate second-level teacher training qualification in 2013.

“All of this has made teaching less attractive, and unless there is a reversal [of these measures], it will only get worse,” she said.

“Unless addressed properly, the scale of the crisis will increase even further in the coming years as the number of students in second-level rises by approximately 70,000 in the education system by 2025,” said Ms Irwin.

TUI and two other teacher unions are mandated to ballot nearly 70,000 members for industrial action if talks to resolve the matter are not satisfactorily concluded early next month.

They will take part in broader talks with the Government from Friday around the pay of recent entrants to the public service, for which there are no commitments in the 2018-2020 lifetime of last year’s Public Service Stability Agreement.

After a previous hearing with representatives of teachers, managers, and others in the primary sector, the Education Committee heard from second-level groups yesterday.

A range of incentives were put forward, including restoration of equal pay scales, allowing pre-qualification teachers undertake paid work in schools, more primary degrees with a subject-specific teaching qualification element, and measures to attract people working in other fields to convert to teaching careers.

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