The education minister was responding to the proposal to re-establish supply panels, under which teachers are employed to be available to local primary schools to cover illness or other short-term absences.
The suggestion came from primary principals and teachers, who rejected Bruton’s idea that curbing of career breaks would solve a crisis in shorter-term substitutions.
A survey of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) shows that nearly one third of schools were unable to find a substitute teacher on more than 10 days since September and that the situation has been worsening since Christmas.
IPPN chief executive, Páiric Clerkin, said he was not aware of any schools having problems recruiting teachers to cover the absence of staff on career breaks. Rather, he said, it was for short-notice substitution, or short contracts, that schools were finding it hard to fill gaps.
“Boards of management have always had a responsibility to ensure they had a replacement teacher available, if they were granting a career break,” he said. “If we had a panel of teachers employed on a yearly basis in each area, we could have them available to our schools for those other absences.”
The number of teachers on career break from primary and second-level schools is up from 1,500 to 2,264 in five years, including 1,600 primary teachers. Despite the views expressed by IPPN, the minister said schools were reporting difficulties filling those positions.
On the idea of supply panels, suggested by Mr Clerkin and by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Mr Bruton said such a system was piloted, but was found to have been expensive and ineffective: “This dates back to the previous government’s time, in 2010, when that system was withdrawn. The evaluation available to the department, at the time, was that they were proving expensive and an ineffective use of resources.
“Obviously, these issues can be re-evaluated by the teacher-supply steering group [I am setting up], but we do come from the experience of having used it and there are certainly some questions around it, so those would have to be considered, if it was to be examined for the future.”
He confirmed he would be asking colleges to double the number of places on second-level teacher-training courses that are open to students after Leaving Certificate, and he wants the increase in numbers on those undergraduate education degrees to begin this year.
Subject to details to be worked out by the steering group — involving his department, third-level colleges, and others — he will also be directing that set numbers of places be provided for those who want to become teachers of subjects in which there are shortages.
These will also be linked to areas where there are shortages of graduates for the economy, such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and languages. Mr Bruton was unable to say when the additional output of teachers in these subjects would be evident to schools.
The INTO described the minister’s attempt to restrict career-break opportunities as a solution to a problem that does not exist, and said it would result in a different group of teachers going abroad to seek work.
INTO general secretary, Sheila Nunan, said panels of supply teachers would guarantee regular employment for those being offered work overseas. This and an end to pay inequality are needed, she said, to provide cover for teachers on short-term unplanned absences.