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Nov 17, 2022, Irish Times: Teacher shortage: ‘Educationally, it’s completely unacceptable. Something is really wrong’

Special education teachers being used to plug gaps in mainstream classes, warn principals Primary school principals say they are managing a crisis in teacher shortages, with nearly two out of three schools in the Dublin area short-staffed.

“The situation is critical in Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare,” said Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) chief executive, Páiric Clerkin. “This has an impact on all children, but especially on the most vulnerable children in our schools.”

Many special education teachers are being forced to plug gaps in mainstream classrooms which, in turn, deprived vulnerable children of vital education, he said.

More than a quarter of all schools who responded to a recent survey by the network said they did not have their full staffing quota, while many positions on supply panels of substitute teachers are lying vacant.

In order to minimise the loss of teaching time for vulnerable children, the IPPN is seeking the immediate reinstatement of a Covid-era facility for schools to bank hours when no substitute is available, as well as long-term investment in a catch-up teaching programme, which ended last year.

The conference also heard concerns over a “wave of mental health” issues among children, many of whom are waiting for access to specialist support.

“More than 10,000 children are currently on a HSE waiting list for mental health treatment with more than 4,000 of these waiting over a year for an appointment with professional services,” Mr Clerkin said. “That doesn’t include all those children who don’t meet the criteria to be placed on a waiting list.”

The needs of these children go far beyond what schools can provide and are being “failed” by the system.

“We know that where children are experiencing mental health issues, early and appropriate intervention works and delays in service provision have a very damaging effect,” he said.

In relation to special educational needs, Mr Clerkin said school leaders agreed that the “system is not working”.

“Special needs are either met or they are not. If not, there is a consequential impact not only on the child with special needs but also on the other children in the class,” he said….

So, where have all the teachers gone? Some say the problem is most acute in Dublin and other urban areas where rents and house prices have made it increasingly unaffordable to live; others say many have gone to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Either way, McGorman says schools like his have to make hard decisions.

“You have to prioritise learning that takes place in the classroom,” he says. “The 28 children in front of you need a teacher, so schools end up redeploying special education teachers to take the class… so those who need the support most don’t get it,” he says.

“It’s just frustrating – educationally, it’s completely unacceptable. Something is really wrong, yet many principals are understandably afraid to say their children are losing out.”

Another source of frustration is that education authorities routinely insist that there is no problem.

“The Teaching Council says there is not a problem with teacher supply; the Minister says she takes her advice from the Teaching Council … But are they digging deep enough into the problem? Are they asking the right questions? Maybe they should look for other advice?” In the meantime, he says, schools are trying to do their best to help children catch-up after three years of Covid-related disruption.

“We see the learning gaps, it’s across the board: the fundamentals. We notice it in trying to kick a ball, their legs are flailing around the place. It’s in engagement, exposure, gaps in mathematical concepts.

“And then there’s the social and emotional anxiety, school reluctance. Those are the challenges we’re dealing with – and that’s what makes these teacher shortages so frustrating. It’s like we’re working with one arm tied behind our back.”


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