Survey finds Wicklow is one of worst supply panel black spots and west Wicklow is particularly affected by proximity to Kildare schools
PRIMARY school principals from west Wicklow have been speaking out about the devastating effects of the teacher shortage in the Garden County.
Eleven west Wicklow principals spoke at length about a range of issues, from insufficient substitute teacher supply panels to their struggles finding maternity cover. They described how they have been forced to adapt their methods.
Reports of Special Education Teachers (SET) teaching in mainstream classes were widespread (and vice-versa), as were tales of administrative-only principals stepping in to put out fires. Smaller, rural schools, in particular have been left out in the cold, with no substitute cover and no prospects for their permanent posts.
One west Wicklow principal, who wished to remain anonymous, said they were currently employing a student teacher. The principal said that they were left with no other alternative, while also highlighting that there “was already a reliance on under-qualified student teachers, who are unfairly expected to fill in subbing gaps”.
Most areas in Wicklow are now covered by a Department of Education supply panel of teachers, which is intended to give schools access to a sub for unplanned or short term absences. A recent survey by Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) found that Wicklow has one of the worst supply panel black spots in the country, with 100 per cent of the surveyed schools saying they had difficulties getting substitute teachers.
Ms Lillian Murphy, principal at Blessington No 1 School, corroborated the recently published figures, saying that they are in line with what she has been experiencing on the ground.
“We’re not doing very well at all,” Lillian said. “There is a supply panel of teachers with four or five on it, but it covers a huge number of schools in west Wicklow and Kildare. We’re paired with big schools in Naas, which would have very large staff and have at least one person out every day. So, when we go to book a sub, they’re usually booked up for the whole month in advance.
“When you’re having to share with such large schools it makes giving your staff Extra Personal Vacation (EPV) days, which you’re entitled to cover for, practically impossible – unless you give notice long in advance.
“Our general staffing is the larger problem though,” Lillian continued. “We had been an eight teacher school up until last September, when we lost another teacher due to our student numbers dipping. The numbers shot up again this summer, so I put in an appeal to the board and, thankfully, they decided that we can fill it immediately.
“So, I advertised the job... and got just one applicant. When I interviewed the applicant, they had already done an interview in a school in Dublin earlier that day. They took that job in the end, and I was left back at square one. I have a fixed-term contract post until June, that will turn into a permanent position, but I’ve absolutely no-one to fill it.”
Lillian went on to describe how she has been forced to adapt to the shortage of teachers, by splitting her smallest class in two.
“If your numbers are big enough in a class, if there are 27 or 28 pupils, it’s very difficult to divide them out and put them in a different classes,” Lillian said. “Our first class, which is the smallest class, is split in two at the moment. Half of them are with senior infants and half are with second class.
“Now, when I started teaching at the school, there were 40 students to a class back then. So, I’m used to teaching in a multi-class system. We get on with it, but it is in no way ideal.”
Principal of Scoil Naomh Bríd in Kiltegan, Mrs Lisa Jackson, echoed the sentiments of her colleague. She finds herself in a similarly bleak position. Having won her appeal to the Department of Education for an additional primary teacher allocation, she said that the frustration of not being able to fill the role is heartbreaking
“I don’t know what more I can do to fill the position,” Lisa began. “We have advertised for it twice, without receiving even a single application. I’ve never experienced that, not for any role we’ve advertised in the past. Fixed-term positions are usually so attractive, but no-one is biting.
“We had to appeal our staffing allocation, based on an increase in pupil numbers this year. We got the go ahead for the extra post, but now we just can’t fill it. I thought the hard part was going to be going through the appeals process, I never factored in the difficulty of finding a candidate. It’s so frustrating. We have the room all set up and ready to go – we just need a teacher!
“In general, we have been lucky with short term substitutions, in that we haven’t needed them,” Lisa continued. “Of course, there have been days where we have had to use our SET teachers to cover an absence. The thing is, I couldn’t find a sub at the moment if I tried, that’s why we’ve tried not to rely on short-term solutions. Having multiple subs throughout the year is not good for the children.”
Cathaoirleach of Baltinglass Municipal District, Cllr John Mullen, has been reacting to the primary school teacher shortage recently. He said: “You look at the situation in Dublin and assume their shortages are down to the cost of living. West Wicklow is a good deal cheaper, so it is somewhat surprising that the shortages are so pronounced here.
“We seem to have the same numbers coming out of teacher training colleges than we have in the recent past, so where are they going? There are so many factors at play of course. Some left after Covid, some retired early. Cost of living certainly seems to be at the root of all of it.
“From the council’s point of view, it’s about making sure we have the housing and public infrastructure to accommodate new teachers and their families. More houses and developments attract more people, and more teachers.”