By Ruth Coppinger, ASTI member and former Socialist Party TD
As schools reopened, a teacher spoke on RTE radio of being unable to find accommodation in Dublin to get to her job. She initially drove each day from Limerick, where she is from, and then eventually from Laois each day.
There is a chronic teacher recruitment and retention crisis, most starkly in secondary schools in Dublin, created by unaffordability and insecurity. The chickens are coming home to roost after years of driving down teacher pay and conditions combined with an almost decade-long housing crisis.
In an ASTI / Red C survey in March, 84% of principals said they had advertised posts for which no teacher at all applied; 55% of schools had unfilled vacancies.
It means subjects will end up being dropped in schools and / or class sizes enlarged. And since working-class areas struggle most to find teachers, disadvantaged students will be further disadvantaged.
The recruitment and retention problem has its roots in the bank bailout of 2008-9 when the Fianna Fail / Green government of the time dramatically cut the public sector and savaged education. It introduced a two-tier public sector pay system, with lower pay, allowances and pensions for post-2011 entrants. It created larger classes and took away vital support and posts within schools that helped struggling students. All of which is now exacerbated by the housing and cost of living crisis.
In the ASTI survey, principals identified a number of factors impacting on teacher shortages: inadequate numbers of teachers graduating in certain subjects, the high cost of the two-year Professional Master of Education (PME) and the decline in the attractiveness of teaching.
Imagine that during a chronic teacher shortage there are still insecure jobs! Teachers have to serve their time, often for years, in secondary schools on temporary contracts and without full hours. It’s noteworthy that what used to be called ’Permanent Whole Time’ (PWT) posts are now CIDs — Contracts of Indefinite Duration.
To add insult to injury, an extra year was added to teacher training (all unpaid, of course), making becoming a teacher a longer, more expensive process.
Teaching has become much more arduous and demanding, with constant assessment, curriculum change and pressure to deal with societal problems. Teachers don’t feel respected — quite the opposite, they were abused and not thanked for risking their health in overcrowded classrooms during the pandemic.
Only 28% of secondary teachers rated their well-being as good or very good. Teachers said workload and work intensity are the main factors impacting wellbeing. Job satisfaction dropped from 63% in 2021 to 50% in 2022.
Lack of union action
While all three teacher unions have protested the two-tier pay system, only the two secondary unions have organised strike action against it. However, strike days have been sporadic and not even coordinated by the two unions, ASTI and TUI, and therefore have been largely ineffective. Successive governments have weathered the storm. There has been some amelioration, but still not parity.
In many countries, teacher shortages pervade. In some US states, the school week is being reduced to four teaching days (teachers still attend for five). In Florida, unqualified veteran soldiers are being handed teaching jobs.
Unless the root causes of the teacher shortage are dealt with, subjects will be dropped in schools. Irish, woodwork and technical subjects, languages, home economics, business and science are all tough to find.
The teacher unions should be using the power created by this labour shortage to press home the advantage and resolve these issues once and for all. Isn’t that the way the ‘market’ is meant to work?
Both secondary unions voted No to ‘Building Momentum’ but we were out-voted by the larger public sector unions. Teachers aren’t part of the negotiating team on the new public sector pay talks. While teachers want unity between trade unions, we can’t be constrained by the bureaucrats in ICTU and must fight to end the injustices making it impossible to retain teachers.
We need concerted industrial action:
* Unions should demand an immediate end to two-tier pay;
* All workers should get double-digit pay rises above inflation;
* Trade unions should call demonstrations on the housing crisis demanding a state-built housing programme and real rent controls;
* Teachers should not have to take on further curriculum change without consent and a full assessment of recent change;
* Industrial action to resolve the issues driving the chronic secondary teacher shortage.