Schools in rural Ireland are under severe pressure at present resulting in an unprecedented level of vacant teaching posts in primary and special schools.

A plethora of reasons are contributing to this shortage including: teachers on panels returning to full-time positions; low numbers of substitutes in local areas; limited bus routes; accommodation shortages; and difficulties attracting newly qualified teachers.

In urban areas, the increased cost of living is also having a major impact.

This information was outlined in an extensive survey published last week by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), in collaboration with the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) and the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA).

Some of the key findings include:

  • Current shortfall of 809 permanent, fixed-term and long-term substitute teachers
  • 63% of vacant posts were in the greater Dublin area
  • 72% of the schools who responded had been able to fill all their vacancies, with 306 schools still having vacant posts
  • 1,202 additional long-term vacancies are anticipated in the next three months
  • 721 schools (66%) responded that they had used a SET to cover for an absence
  • **The survey of all primary and special schools was conducted in the first week of October with a total of 1,094 schools responding (a 35% response rate).

    Most vulnerable pupils are losing out

    INTO Deputy General Secretary Deirdre O’Connor emphasises the housing crisis and escalating living costs are having a huge impact on the recruitment and retention of teachers, particularly within areas that are experiencing rent pressures.

    “The downgrading of the profession between 2009 and 2013 when allowances for teachers were withdrawn and the heart was ripped from the promotional system has left a damning legacy,” she says.

    “Other countries are incentivising Ireland’s primary teachers to work overseas, and the Department of Education is failing to convince them that they are valued here. As a result, our most vulnerable pupils are losing out.”

    Issues among secondary schools

    At secondary school level, the Principals and Deputy Principals’ Association (PDA) of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) also conducted a similar online survey in 2022 (this year’s results have not yet been published). This also highlighted a continuing and severe teacher recruitment and retention crisis. Principals and deputy principals in 94 second-level schools participated.

    Some of the key findings include:

  • 91% of secondary schools said they have experienced teacher recruitment difficulties
  • 61% had unfilled vacancies due to recruitment and retention difficulties in the last six months
  • 84% said not enough was being done at government/ Department of Education level to tackle recruitment retention issues in second-level schools
  • Department of Education response

    A spokesperson from the Department of Education had the following response:

    “Ensuring that every child’s experience in school is positive and that they have qualified, engaged teachers available to support them in their learning is a priority area of action for the government.

    “While schools in certain locations are experiencing challenges in both recruiting teachers and obtaining substitute teachers, the vast majority of sanctioned teacher positions are filled.

    “Budget 2024 contained a range of measures that demonstrate the department’s commitment to continued investment in our education system. In addition to numerous actions taken in recent years to address teacher supply, a number of specific, targeted measures will be introduced with the new funding provided.

    “These include a professional masters of education (PME) incentive scheme, funding for additional teacher upskilling programmes, and increasing the number of posts of responsibility.”

    Primary school views

    Louise Tobin, principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Tipperary and President of the IPPN

    Louise Tobin, principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Tipperary and President of the Irish Primary Principles Network (IPPN).

    “It’s a crisis now and the survey says it all with a shortfall of almost 1,000 teachers and the prediction there will be another 1,000 in the next couple of months. I am so used to getting a phone call or a text message after school or first thing in the morning and going into a panic to find subs for the classrooms.

    “Our priority is putting teachers into classrooms as everyone needs their classroom teacher. Unfortunately, that means redeploying staff into classes and being down teachers catering for our special additional need’s principles.

    “In Tipperary, it is extra challenging to get subs in rural areas. We have supply panels and I am hearing teachers in those positions are leaving those to take up a permanent or fixed-term role.

    “If Special Education Teachers (SET) have to be redesignated to teach a class, the most vulnerable pupils with special educational needs are missing out on their time out for one to one, group work or activity breaks.

    “Most importantly, all children deserve to be taught by a fully qualified teacher every day to ensure the best education provision for them. Unfortunately, the impact of this teacher supply issue and sub shortage is that if anyone is available to work they are most likely unqualified, mostly student teachers. Quality teaching and learning is vital for our young students.”

    Diarmuid Hennessy, Principal of Scoil Mhuire na nGrást, Belgooly, Co Cork

    Diarmuid Hennessy, Principal of Scoil Mhuire na nGrást, Belgooly, Co Cork.

    “I am part of a local support group with other principals and they’re finding it very difficult to get teachers, as am I. We are very much relying on student teachers from college who may have some availability, between semesters, at various times during the year. That provision is very haphazard, it’s only short-term absences they can cover. Outside of that, there are very few, if any, substitutes available.

    “We are lucky to be part of a teacher supply panel which is based in another school. There are three teachers on that panel, however, there are 11 schools with up to 180 teachers being serviced.

    “Being in a rural area, a limited public bus route service and limited local available accommodation are some of the issues also impacting on substitute teacher availability.”

    Bryan Collins, Principal of Scoil Naomh Feichin, Termonfeckin, Co Louth

    Bryan Collins, Principal of Scoil Naomh Feichin, Termonfeckin, Co Louth.

    “The greatest challenge we face, on a daily basis, is the extreme difficulty in finding a replacement teacher when a permanent teacher is absent. This is not a new phenomenon, as we have seen the situation becoming more serious over the last decade.

    “The IPPN brought it to the attention of the government back in 2018 when it released its “Submission on Substitute Teacher Shortage”. Regrettably, the Department of Education did not react in a timely manner to this impending crisis and that’s why we are where we are now.

    “It is almost impossible to find a substitute teacher if a teacher is absent at short notice. Schools in cities and large urban areas have been worst affected over recent years, however, rural schools like ours are now coming under more and more pressure due to the lack of available teachers.”

    Secondary School views

    Paul Crone, Director of the National Association of Principals and Deputies

    Paul Crone, Director of the National Association of Principals and Deputies.

    “There are three main areas of concern affecting teacher shortages in secondary schools. One is in Dublin and the commuter belts, the second is in rural areas and the third is the availability of short-term substitutes to cover maternity leave, parental leave and all short-term leaves.

    “There has been a lot done by the Department of Education to try and increase the availability of teachers including the teacher extension scheme, allowing teachers to teach over their 22 hours in that particular subject.

    “Schools are having to prioritise exam years, join classes together and look at innovative ways of sharing the teacher around the school. There are long-term concerns about the quality of what we are delivering to students.

    “The main issue in rural schools is accommodation. The infrastructure is not there to support younger teachers in finding rental accommodation and thereby, affecting their standard of living. Schools that are off the beaten track are finding it hard to attract newly qualified teachers to those areas unless they are originally from there.

    Adrian Power, PDA President, and principal of Bridgetown College, Bridgetown, Co Wexford.

    Adrian Power, Principals and Deputy Principals Association (PDA) President, and principle of Bridgetown College, Bridgetown, Co Wexford.

    “The teacher shortage is probably a bigger issue in secondary education, some subjects are worse than others and have been for years. This is a problem that stems back to the savage cuts that were made in 2009. Posts of responsibility in secondary schools meant the advancement structure was seriously damaged. New entrants’ conditions of service were shredded concerning pension and pay. It’s only starting to normalise now but for years there was a two-tier pay system where two professionals were doing the same job but on different pay scales.

    “Thankfully, I am fully staffed in my school at the moment. However, getting substitution teachers is a problem for all schools. Teachers are leaving the larger urban areas, particularly Dublin, as they can’t afford to live on a teacher’s salary unless they live at home or in shared accommodation.

    “Some teachers who used to commute no longer do so due to the rising price of fuel."