Tapping the rich well of our teaching diaspora in the Gulf
As the shortage of educators in Irish schools reaches crisis levels, there are plans afoot to encourage graduates back to the country, writes Katherine Donnelly
At a time when schools are crying out for teachers, there are at least 6,000 Irish graduates teaching abroad, many of them in the Gulf States of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Qatar.
The best informed estimates suggest it is somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000, including those teaching at both primary and post-primary.
They are not all fully qualified under Irish rules. Many of those in the Middle East graduated in other disciplines such as languages, business or arts but, aided by an online professional upskilling programme, turned to teaching to take advantage of the well-remunerated opportunities there.
In a country where education is regarded as our most valuable resource, the sheer scale of the teaching diaspora in the Gulf is our oil well, and one from which a pipeline back to Ireland is needed to tackle staff shortages and ensure national education standards do not suffer.
Second-level principals face increasing difficulties in recruiting for a growing number of subjects: Irish, foreign languages, home economics, maths and other STEM subjects. Some schools opened without a full complement of teachers last September. At primary level, finding a substitute is a major problem.
With pupil numbers at second-level growing and more schools opening, finding enough teachers for those extra classrooms may become even more challenging. It is not only the education system that is calling, Irish mammies are also yearning for their sons and daughters to come home.
As a former teacher who worked in the UAE, Education Minister Joe McHugh understands the lure and the temptation to stay on, but he also believes there are many young teachers who want to return, but for one reason or another are not booking their flight.
So what's stopping them? The cost of car insurance, it seems, is one issue because even if they had insurance before, they have to start at the bottom of the ladder - a bone of contention not only for teachers, but others who emigrated in search of work in the recession years.
The minister wants to know more and he is planning a trip to the UAE, probably in June. He wants to tease through what Irish teachers see as the barriers to returning and then look at ways of overcoming them.
"Sometimes we can try to understand this from afar, but you have to meet with the people, sit down with them," said Minister McHugh.
"We have to continue to get a deeper understanding of this, as to why young teachers who want to come home are not making that decision."
He appreciates that "a lot of them had to leave as young graduates in search of work and that, now, when the economy is going well, we are reaching out to them to come back home. I am conscious of that. Irish people live in world where you don't tell them what to do; they like to be asked and I think it would be nice to do it in person. I am happy to do that".
Ahead of the visit, plans are afoot for a recruitment drive in the Gulf aimed at filling posts available next September.
McHugh acknowledges that pay inequality is an issue. While much progress has been made on closing the pay gap between pre- and post-2011 entrants to teaching, the matter is not fully resolved. On top of that, changes in the qualifications regime for teachers means they may spend up to six years in college, which has pushed up their costs. Those choosing the two year Postgraduate Master's in Education (PME) on top of a three- or four-year undergraduate programme, could leave college with debts of €25,000 or more. Tax-free salaries in the Middle East are an easy way of clearing those before a mortgage looms.
Second-level teachers starting off often spend years on short hours, hardly an incentive to give up a well-paid, perks-and-all post elsewhere, which is why the minister is encouraging schools to take advantage of a new initiative and combine hours in order to create a joint full-time position.
There is anecdotal evidence of Irish teachers in the Middle East starting to return to the UK to be close to home, which begs the question why not complete the journey. Many are the non-teaching graduates who, in the Gulf, embarked on an online Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course with a UK university, The PGCE is globally-recognised, but the Teaching Council in Ireland requires that they complete a probation year in the UK - and that is before any complications that may arise around Brexit.
The GAA, which keeps the Irish community in the Middle East tightly-knit, will play a role in the initiative. From Abu Dhabi Na Fianna to the Sharjah Gaels, clubs have sprouted up all over the Gulf and will be used as a point of contact between the minister and the teaching diaspora.