Breaking the mould for entry to teaching
Projects underway in third-level colleges are targeting students from a wider range of backgrounds for a career in education, writes Katherine Donnelly
There are two concerns about the Irish teaching profession. One relates to shortages for certain subjects at second level, as well as a low supply of substitutes to cover for temporary absences at primary level.
The other is the lack of diversity, with teachers overwhelmingly white Irish, from more socially advantaged backgrounds and, in primary schools particularly, female. Entry to primary teaching tends to be the preserve of the top 25pc of Leaving Cert achievers when counted in CAO points. That may be an indicator of academic quality, but is a barrier to those with the aptitude and the ability, but who, for one reason or another, don't or can't compete for entry to teacher training on that basis.
In the past year, Education Minster Richard Bruton has provided €2.7m for programmes to increase the number of students from under-represented groups into teaching: these include people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, migrant groups, students with a disability and members of the Traveller community.
The hope is to bring 120 new teachers from such groups into the system over the next few years - a modest target, but it has to start somewhere.
The bigger goal is to create role models to bring about changes in culture so young people in all communities will be comfortable in the view that, yes, teaching can be for them.
Broadening diversity will also lead to a better understanding of the challenges these communities face, which may then be brought to bear on teaching methods.
The €2.7m has been allocated to seven consortia of colleges involved in teacher education. Their initiatives are now coming on-stream and they are actively seeking participants to become mould-breakers in their communities.
Maynooth University, which runs teacher training programmes for early-childhood, primary and post-primary level, is taking a three-pronged approach to address the various issues. A key element is a one year, pre-university foundation course called Turn to Teaching, which will prepare 25 students annually who have experienced deep educational disadvantage for entry to teacher education programmes.
The first course will start next September and will include access to an Irish language module to assist students to reach the required entry standard for teacher training as well as to encourage participants to become future teachers of Irish. The Irish classes are likely to start in the summer.
Grace Edge, of Maynooth University Access Programme, says they are reaching out to the most marginalised and under-represented communities through the network of DEIS schools, lone parents' groups, Traveller groups, refugee and migrant groups, and other community and adult education partners, with which various departments of the university work.
She says they have a lot of interest already and are continuing to work with their networks to identify students who could benefit.
The hope and plan is that students will progress from the foundation course to reserved places on a Maynooth University teaching degree programme of their choice.
Another of the seven projects is being led by the Educational Disadvantage Centre in Dublin City University (DCU), which has in its hinterland, Dublin 17, the area with the lowest progression rate to third-level, nationally.
The cornerstones of its plan are two new community learning hubs, one in Darndale and another due in Kilbarrack, specifically to promote access to the DCU Institute of Education, which trains educators for every level, from early childhood up.
The centres will include formal and informal education sessions, focusing on mentoring and providing information about teaching as a career, as well as supports for the Irish language.
Centre director Dr Paul Downes says they are engaging with individuals to see what their needs are so they can tailor supports. The hope is that, through the hubs, they will create communities of learners who will encourage each other. "The social aspect is important - we want them to bond as groups, so they can help each other to gain confidence to apply and to get in," he says.
While targeting a number of groups, they are currently honing in on people who are working in schools, such as special needs assistants (SNAs).
"They know how schools work - many are very enthusiastic about wanting to become teachers. Some may already have qualifications in early childhood education, whether degree or post Leaving Cert (PLC) level, and it will be a question of seeing how to build on that," he says.
Since the Darndale Learning Hub opened in October, they have recruited about 25 SNAs, while about 14 are already planning to start in Kilbarrack.
He sees it as only the beginning and has told Mr Bruton of the need for flexibility, such as allowing students to reach the necessary standard in Irish over the course of their training rather than having a hard and fast requirement at entry level.