Lack of teachers 'harms pupils' learning level'
The quality of education offered to pupils suffers dramatically when there is a shortage of teachers, a union leader pointedly warned.
Difficulties faced by primary schools in recruiting substitute teachers will have a direct impact on quality, according to Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) president John Boyle.
He compared performances with findings from another global study eight years ago, involving pupils in Ireland who had come through a period when there was a shortage of qualified teachers.
He referred to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment of 2010, when 15-year-olds in Ireland dropped dramatically down the world rankings for reading and maths.
Mr Boyle said that cohort of pupils "did not have access to fully qualified teachers every day" because they had come through primary at a time when there was a teacher shortage.
"Education cuts take a long time to heal and consequences are felt years afterwards."
He said pupils were entitled to a proper teacher every day, and called on Education Minister Richard Bruton to do more to ensure a ready supply of qualified substitutes to cover for teacher absences.
In his opening address to the INTO annual conference, Mr Boyle pointed to recent positive outcomes for Ireland from an international pupil assessment, known as PIRLS. It found that Irish 10-year-olds had the best reading skills in Europe and among the best in the world.
He said it was "no coincidence that the pupils who sat these tests have benefited from fully qualified teachers throughout their years in school".
The INTO president said that a minister who could not provide a qualified teacher every day "has no claim to building the best education system in Europe".
A survey by the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) in the current school year has brought the scale of the substitute shortage into sharp focus,
In the first two months of the year, primary principals were unable to find a qualified substitute for one-in-three vacancies, such as a teacher illness.
In some cases the vacancy was filled by someone who was not a registered teacher, but in most cases, no substitute was found.
It translates into many pupils losing out on tuition, and merely being supervised, or split between other classes.
The CPSMA survey was conducted in September-October, and nothing as comprehensive has been carried out since, but principals say that generally the need for substitution becomes greater over the winter.
Mr Boyle called on Mr Bruton to restore paid panels of qualified teachers to cover absences and teaching principals' administration days "as a matter of urgency".
He accused the minister, who recently described the panel system as "expensive and ineffective", of having a very negative attitude.
"Such a scheme worked successfully until it was abandoned by government in 2010. That negative attitude will lose us our top ranking internationally," said Mr Boyle.
The INTO says establishing panels of qualified teachers, and paying them to be available, would be an incentive to young teachers to stay in Ireland.
Professor Anne O'Gara, president of the Marino Institute of Education teacher training college, expressed concern at the conference that while nurses were held in growing esteem, steps needed to be taken to ensure teachers continued to be highly valued.
She referred to the "exodus of young teachers to the Middle East and beyond in search of better pay and conditions and the resultant problem of teacher supply".
Prof O'Gara said the education community had a role to play to ensure that the status of teaching as a profession continued to be highly valued by the Government and the public at large.
Problems around teacher supply will be debated at the conference today, where delegates will call for the restoration of supply panels, and commit the union leadership to keeping a tighter watch on where vacancies cannot be filled.