The re-establishment of panels of primary teachers paid to be on standby to cover absences should go ahead to help alleviate a teacher supply crisis, Education Minister Joe McHugh has said.
Although final details have yet to be agreed by his department, the minister said a ‘supply panel’ system which was piloted for several years is one option that can be used to address substitute shortages in particular.
The panels comprised qualified teachers paid the equivalent of a full-time salary who could be called on at short notice to provide substitution cover in primary schools in the local area.
But claims that they were not always fully employed were cited when the Department of Education scrapped the long-running pilot at the height of the recession.
A year ago at the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) annual conference, Mr McHugh’s predecessor Richard Bruton mentioned inefficiencies and cost when he raised doubts about the school leaders’ call to reinstate the system amid a growing crisis faced by principals trying to find substitutes.
The current minister addressed the issue after IPPN president David Ruddy highlighted the ongoing problems at the organisation’s 2019 conference.
“One of the greatest challenges still facing us is finding teachers to teach our pupils. We’ve got texts from some of our colleagues who cannot attend today because of that substitute shortage,” Mr Ruddy said.
“Short-term vacancies and maternity leave are particularly difficult for us...If it weren’t for retired teachers, I don’t know how we’d survive."
Recent Department of Education statistics showed a spike in the number of retired teachers being used in primary schools during the last school year, up almost half in a year from 679 to 1,003.
They worked an average of 33 days each, more than double the 13-day average worked by retired teachers in primary schools six years earlier.
Mr Ruddy acknowledged recent measures that will help, including easing of restrictions around the ability of teachers on career break to provide substitute cover.
Mr McHugh told the principals and deputy principals at the IPPN conference that the use of teacher supply panels is being discussed with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and is under consideration.
He was applauded for committing to further progress on extra administration days allowed for the majority of principals at smaller schools where they are required to be full-time teachers themselves.
The minister later told reporters that he is anxious to see the supply panel system introduced, as he recognises the pressure facing principals trying to organise substitute cover at short notice.
“The communication between the INTO and my officials is ongoing. I want to see clever, creative practical ways of doing this. The substitute panel is an example of doing this and it’s something I want to see happen,” Mr McHugh said.
“If you go back far enough, there is a precedent there as well. If we can bring that back in, it’s something that I’m committed to."
The availability of additional days for administration work for teaching principals would also provide more opportunity for teachers on supply panels to be used on a regular basis, further helping to justify their establishment.
The minister said one of his priorities is to build on the number of extra ‘release days’ for teaching principals, and primary principals with special classes, already provided in recent budgets.
“I want to see something meaningful happen here, and I will work with IPPN on this...I think we can allow a bit of space to try and see how this can happen,” Mr McHugh said.