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Piece published in Irish Independent – Tackling the sub crisis

25th January 2018 | General Secretary's Blog

Just before Christmas an international study (PIRLS) found that Irish ten-year-olds are among the best in the world when it comes to literacy. The world’s largest comparative study of reading achievement among primary school pupils, found no other EU or OECD country has achieved a score higher than Ireland’s, and only two countries, Singapore and the Russian Federation were ahead of us.

Though grossly underfunded (Donald Trump’s America spends more per pupil on primary education than the Irish government does) Irish primary schools are delivering a great education for our children.

However primary principals and Boards of Management are feeling the pressure of a lack of qualified substitute teachers, and that pressure is impacting on the education of our children and the effective administration of our local schools.

In a recent CPSMA survey, 90% of principals confirmed that they had difficulties finding a substitute teachers and 82% said the problem was worse than last year.

This isn’t just a huge problem for principals, it’s a major problem for pupils. Some classes are now being taught by people who do not have a qualification in primary education. Special education needs teachers are being pulled in to supervise mainstream classes, and, when all else fails, classes are being broken up and pupils are dispersed to other classes. This is no way to run a 21st century educational system. It’s unfair to pupils and particularly to our most vulnerable pupils.

The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better, as we now entering a period of high demand for substitute teachers. Certainly two strains of flu hitting the country at the same time won’t help the situation.

To use a sporting analogy we have a world class team we just don’t have enough people on the subs’ bench.

Why is there a shortage and what can be done about it?

Due to the lack of hard data it is difficult to say for sure why a subs crises has developed but I suspect it has been building unnoticed for the last few years and reached a tipping point due to the widespread recruitment of primary school teachers for tax-free jobs in the Middle East.

The first thing that needs to happen is for the Minster to accept there is a problem.

In the short term, there is no magic bullet to solve it but we do need research to better understand the issue and we need a focused marketing effort to coax all of the registered teachers who are out there, whether retired or abroad, back into Irish classrooms.

The INTO have tabled some eminently sensible proposals which, if implemented, would really help the situation. These include incentives to get retired teachers back into the classroom and the setting up of a supply panel of registered teachers, in effect a subs’ bench for primary teachers. The sooner these proposals are implemented the better.

In the longer term we need to fully implement the recommendations of the Teaching Council report Striking the Balance and put in place a long term strategy to ensure that we win the war for talent in Education and ensure that the best and brightest of our young people continue to enter the teaching profession.

We also need to reduce the administrative burden on principals and teachers so they can focus on teaching and learning rather than form filling and box ticking. The initiative overload arising from a succession of Ministers for Education needs to be paused or at least slowed. If we do so teachers themselves will become the most powerful salespeople there are for the profession.

The Minister for Education has stated many times that he wants the Irish Educational system to be the best in Europe. As the teachers in Clongowes no doubt told him, over 150 years ago the Jesuits had the same vision. Within 50 years of their founding they had set up 150 colleges across Europe creating the world’s first international educational network famous for the high standard of Education offered. The Jesuits had a very simple strategy: hire outstanding teachers. The same principle holds true today, we need the best and the brightest in Education. If Irish primary schools don’t continue to win the war for talent, Ireland as a nation won’t either.


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