THOUSANDS of Leaving Cert students are set to suffer serious exam chaos with a mass exodus of teachers just weeks before their exams.
Around 1,000 teachers will retire by February after a major botch up by the Department of Education.
The retirements -- just 12 weeks before the Leaving Cert -- will come half way through the school year in order for retirees to safeguard their pension entitlements.
The mass exit will leave thousands of Leaving and Junior Cert students without a teacher, who would have spent 18 months preparing them for the most important month of their young lives.
Chaos looms because of a shocking Government decision to pick February as the deadline date instead of some time during the end of term.Senior education sources said that this could cause chaos as teachers depart mid-school year, leaving students and schools in the dark.
Teachers are entitled to their pension and a tax-free lump sum based on their 2009 salary under the Croke Park Agreement extension.
However, if they decide to retire after February, their pension entitlements will be based on their reduced salary, which was cut in line with public sector pay agreements.
Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body (JMB), said boards of management of secondary schools are growing anxious.
"We are very concerned about it and the impact it will have on continuity and learning," he said. "There could be difficulty getting suitably qualified teachers in the middle of the year.
"We are particularly talking about the exam classes -- the Leaving Cert students could have their teacher leave in the middle of the year.
"It is possible that students could lose three or four teachers."
He added: "We are appealing to the Department to adjust the date for this cut off and push it towards the end of May or August."
A Department of Education spokeswoman told the Herald that so far this year 958 teachers retired (595 primary and 363 secondary) but this is tipped to rise as teachers rush to take up the offer before the cut-off date.
"There is an expectation of a higher than normal number of retirements later this year or early next year," she said.
Sources at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said teachers are "weighing up their options" because of the deadline.
"We do expect a lot of people to take up retirement," they said. "They are considering what makes sense for them at the moment."
ASTI representative Gemma Tuffy said that the union will be pressing for a change in the final closing date.
"The timing of it is such that it is mid-school year and some schools will be left in a position that they find it difficult to fill that post at that time," she said.
"Schools would never normally recruit at this time."