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Thursday 19 April 2018

Where have all our young teachers gone?

We have allowed hedge funds to make billions but we can't afford to staff our schools properly, writes Colm O'Rourke

The Department of Education may not admit to it and the word ''crisis'' is banned - but it is exactly the situation in many schools at present.

It is impossible to get subs in many primary schools and at second level it is probably even worse. When I, as a principal, go to various meetings with my colleagues the talk is always now of where you could source a maths, French, Spanish or Irish teacher. That is just taking a few examples.

From September to Christmas I advertised three times for various combinations of subjects with no suitable candidate replying. Most of the time there was no reply at all.

Much of the focus for the problem has centred on young teachers taking career breaks and heading for Dubai or elsewhere to enjoy a year out and make some money as well. It is good for them and one year out in a career should be compulsory. There are a number of reasons for this travel. The main one is that young teachers earn very little above subsistence level, they are treated badly and the pay differential between them and older teachers should be urgently addressed.

I can't understand why the Government will not make some commitment to equalising pay among teachers as the whole thing is not only unjust but self defeating as it is leading to a mass exodus from the country.

Young teachers may take home less than €500 a week. This is after three years' primary degree and two years doing a masters in education which costs them an extra €9,000. All part of the so-called free education system. So after racking up considerable debt, unless they have a parent with money or the ability to borrow, they come out into the jobs world and take a position in a school where they are paid less than the office staff or the caretakers - and they are certainly not overpaid.

Even before some get out of college there is inbuilt discrimination. Some college courses, such as PE, science and construction degrees, have a teaching element in their studies and they spend four years in college. Others who do a BA degree for three years then have to do the two-year PME add-on before they can teach. That is both costly and unjust. The new PME replaced the old HDip and was extended to two years. It makes money for the colleges but I don't see much need to increase the duration of study from one to two years. If you can teach, you will have picked it up in one year. If you can't then two or 22 years won't change it.

So many young people now take a hard economic view of the market after doing a primary degree. Many will not bother with teaching at all. Why would they spend an extra two very costly years in college and get paid dirt wages after it with no prospect of any substantial increase in their life time?

Others who love teaching decide that the only way they can get ahead is to either start in Ireland and take a career break or else head straight for the sand. And while people can make snide remarks - and elite players often like the hours associated with it so they can train better - teaching is still a vocation and teachers are the biggest influencers on young people.

Do you want the best for your children? We are lucky in this country that we still have them but if not treated with dignity and respect the profession could go the way of many countries, down the tubes.

Teachers are not opportunists. In my humble opinion these young teachers are for the most part very talented, committed and dedicated. They deserve better treatment. This is what every union should be demonstrating about but after the ASTI made a show of themselves in the last dispute nobody takes them seriously anymore, least of all the Government. Anyway, the certainty is that the treatment of these young teachers is a national disgrace which has repercussions in every school in the country.

This is not to say that there is no investment in education, it would be factually wrong to say that. There are new schools going up everywhere and there is a lot of investment in IT - but any system that does not reward a profession with salaries which give a decent standard of living will not attract and retain the type of people who are needed.

Overshadowing all of this and closely connected to teachers leaving the country is the housing crisis. This is a social catastrophe and is leading to all sorts of downstream problems, one of which is teachers jumping ship. It is one of the great failures of Government policy that people like teachers, gardai, nurses, doctors, firemen and on and on cannot afford to buy a house or apartment and live in Ireland, most especially in Dublin. Young teachers could not even afford to rent in Dublin. So the only avenue open is to go abroad, save hard and hope to get a deposit, the only downside being that the price of houses continues to escalate while they are away.

This is solely a problem created in Ireland. During the financial crisis, NAMA on behalf of the State sold thousands of apartments and houses to foreign hedge funds. Names like Cerberus, Lone Star, and Blackstone are well known to Irish people. They have ripped off our citizens with the backing of our own Government.

David Ehrlich of Ires Reit has been reported as having 3,000 apartments in Ireland, with very high rents being charged in Dublin. Others in these hedge funds have land and houses which should have been sold off at knockdown prices to young Irish people.

They now have to pay the inflated profits to the hedge funds. It was a once in a century opportunity for the Government through NAMA to give cheap housing to young people and also hand over land to sporting organisations. But Paddy could not apply. The hedge funds got everything.

Now young people pay through the nose, hence the need to travel to Dubai, Melbourne and Auckland. Much of the time for good too. So at Christmas every year we hear the stories on the radio of grandparents waiting at the airport to see grandchildren for the first time in five years. It is unnatural but a problem which has "made in Ireland" stamped all over it. Another round now seems set to start with Ulster Bank and PTSB.

In addition to that, I cannot but laugh when I hear that there is legislation going to be enacted to deal with ticket touts. Of course it can grate a bit when concert prices are being advertised soon after purchase at inflated prices. In defence of touts I have often bought off them at big games in rugby, soccer and even at football matches when I was much younger. They supply a service. But I can't help wondering will this legislation apply to people like Wilbur Ross who made €500m when buying shares in the Bank Of Ireland in 2011 and selling in 2014. Or Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial Holdings who made even more. Are they touts or profiteers? And will the same rules apply to old friends like Blackstone, Lone Star or Cerberus. Or will it apply to Davidson Kempner, another of that fine group who channel their profits through Ireland so as to pay no tax like the other hedge funds who assailed the country.

Each of these capitalist groups, ticket touts and hedge funds buy and then sell at a profit. The only difference is that one group may make a few quid around Croke Park, the O2 or the Aviva, the others have played and continue to play a leading role in ensuring our teachers are leaving the country as they cannot afford to follow the normal route of buying a house, settling down and having a family. Because a lot of houses and apartments are controlled by hedge funds and are out of reach of most ordinary couples, hedge funds who are largely unregulated and pay little or no profit in Ireland.

So now you know why mine and every other school can't get a French, maths or Spanish teacher. As a country we have allowed hedge funds to rip us off for billions but we can't afford to pay teachers enough to live.

We created the mess and everyone on the Government side was asleep in the class which dealt with solutions. Come to think of it, very few of the suits have even still made the link between teachers in Dubai and houses in Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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