Sunday 20 October 2019

Teacher shortage forces return of 'sub panel' to plug gap in schools

Retired primary staff had to provide cover for 33,000 days in one year

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Joe McHugh is reintroducing panels of primary teachers to work across clusters of schools to fill short-term gaps in the face of a worsening staffing crisis.

The initiative is being resurrected after a similar scheme was shelved for financial reasons during the downturn.

It will be piloted in six areas, in response to huge difficulties experienced by primary principals in finding sub cover for vacancies such as sick leave and maternity leave.

The scale of the problem can be gauged by the 33,093 sub days worked by 1,003 retired primary teachers in 2017/18. That rocketed from 320 retired teachers working 5,996 days in 2014/15.

A survey by the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association two years ago found 90pc of schools were experiencing difficulty sourcing a sub. Mr McHugh is announcing the pilot supply panel scheme today as the annual round of teacher conferences kicks off.

He said they were "a direct response to staffing difficulties I've heard about from teachers, principals and management bodies.

"They have great potential to support schools in tackling the issue of staff shortages, to reduce the administrative burden and improve access to quality, reliable substitute cover."

For a teacher, the full-time contract that comes with a place on a panel provides employment and income certainty.

The areas targeted for the initiative are north and south Dublin, Cork, Galway, Kildare and Meath, where the most significant staffing pressures are being felt.

The scheme will operate on a pilot basis from September, with two to three teachers employed to work across clusters of 10-15 schools in each of six areas.

Overall, it will include up to 90 schools and offer full-time contracts to 18 teachers who might otherwise be depending on the availability of work on an ad hoc, daily paid basis.

Each supply teacher will be employed by one school, as an additional resource, and assigned to other schools in the cluster within a radius of about a 45-minute commute, as required.

It is a modest trial and the scheme will be reviewed towards the end of the next school year to determine whether it should be continued and extended, if necessary.

The Department of Education will shortly be contacting schools in the selected locations to invite participation.

Mr McHugh urged schools to see the panels "as an effective solution".

A similar scheme, which ran from mid 1990s until 2010, was regarded as positive but expensive - and was axed when the financial crisis hit.

Principals and teacher unions have been clamouring for the return of panels, which were again ruled out only a year ago by previous education minister Richard Bruton.

However, the persistence of the teacher shortage problem forced a rethink and the education department is hoping the design as well as advances in communications technology will deliver better value for money.

It is likely clusters will operate through a social media platform, such as WhatsApp, rather than relying on a series of individual phone calls or texts.

Mr McHugh's hopes that the certainty of a full-time contract will act as an incentive to teachers to resist the lure of a job in the Middle East or to return here if they have emigrated.

Irish Independent

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