‘It is an anxious, frustrating time’: Schools struggle to find qualified teachers for vacant posts

As teachers’ conferences get under way, supply, retention and rates of pay look set to dominate agenda

Last week principal Rachel O’Connor checked the school post to see how many applications had arrived for vacant teaching posts at her school in the coming academic year.

Eleven teaching posts will need to be filled at Ramsgrange Community School, Co Wexford, across a range of subject areas due to rising numbers of teachers going on career breaks or job shares.

O’Connor had hoped for a large volume of postal or emailed applications for each individual vacancy. Instead, she found just 12 applications. “Just to put that in context, we advertised for an art teaching post a few years ago and got 80 responses,” says O’Connor.

“As a school leader, it is an anxious, frustrating time. There is huge anxiety because you want what’s best for the students. But where I am, right now, in the middle of April, I can’t guarantee I’ll have suitably qualified teachers standing at the top of the classrooms in September.”


The challenges of finding qualified teachers, holding on to new recruits and pay rates are some of the biggest issues facing the primary and second-level education sectors, and they look set to dominate teachers’ Easter conferences which get under way on Monday.

Difficulty recruiting teachers isn’t a new problem, but the scale of it is.

At primary level, the teacher supply problem is most acute in the search for substitute teachers for short-term cover or a leave of absence, according to teachers.

At second level, it is posing big challenges for schools in finding qualified teachers to fill specialist teaching roles in maths, Irish, home economics, chemistry, foreign languages and other subjects.

So, how big is the problem? Late last year a Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) poll of principals and deputies found the vast majority (91 per cent) had experienced challenges hiring qualified teachers in the past six months.

The subjects most difficult to employ teachers were – in rank order – maths, Irish, home economics, chemistry and French.

Last week the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) released a new poll of more than 2,000 members.

If anything, the problem appears even more acute. The poll found that three-quarters of school leaders reported receiving zero applications for an advertised teaching post or posts in the current school year. There were unfilled teaching vacancies in almost half of second-level schools, while almost a fifth of schools were forced to remove a subject or subjects from the curriculum as a result.

Strategies used by schools to deal with teacher supply issues included using “out-of-field” teachers to take some subjects or reassigning special education teachers to mainstream classes due to substitution shortages.

If identifying the symptoms of the crisis is easy, finding solutions will be much harder. Soaring rents in urban areas, a scarcity of housing and the rising cost of living all seem to be playing a part.

While some teachers have emigrated, companies involved in overseas recruitment – such as Teach & Explore – say there is no sign of a spike and that numbers have remained broadly steady over recent years.

Anecdotally, however, many younger teachers in the capital are choosing to move back home or to more affordable parts of the country.

“The impact of the accommodation crisis across the country is also having a huge effect, particularly in situations where teachers have contracts of less than full hours,” says TUI president Liz Farrell. “In too many cases, teachers are advising that they cannot secure accommodation, never mind sustain themselves if they do.”

ASTI president Miriam Duggan says these shortages are having a real impact on students.

“Schools are being forced to use unqualified teachers, to divert resources away from students with special education needs, and to drop subjects from the curriculum,” she says. “This is shocking.”

School principal Austin Fennessy sees the problems caused by teacher shortages first-hand. He is the principal of Mount Seskin Community College in Jobstown, Dublin.

While he says his school management – Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board (DDETB) – has been very supportive, there are additional challenges due to the cost of accommodation or long commutes. Retaining young staff can be a struggle.

“From talking to colleagues, we all worry about holding on to the teachers we have. There are added expenses to living or working in Dublin, which may be a factor for them.”

He says this risks undermining one of the great strengths of the Irish education system: wide subject choice at second level.

“I think in Dublin, especially, it can be difficult in areas in particular like materials technology in woodwork, engineering, metalwork. Modern foreign languages, home economics, maths, Gaeilge: they can be really difficult,” he says.

“I hear colleagues [locally] telling me about serious difficulties. So, we all have to consider the possibility or probability that particular subject options may not be available. That is particularly worrying.”

While schools have tended to plug gaps using “out-of-field” teachers, or those without a specific subject qualification, this isn’t possible for many practical subjects or foreign languages.

“We try to continue to search all year round to recruit suitable and qualified teachers for specific areas. Quite often we depend on the goodwill of teachers who have retired. In several cases, they have returned to the classroom out of loyalty to the school, DDETB and the students.”

Minister for Education Norma Foley, who addresses the teachers’ union conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday, has announced a series of measures aimed at boosting the supply of teachers.

They include greater flexibility to enable student teachers to provide more substitute cover; lifting financial penalties for retired teachers providing cover; allowing job-sharing teachers to work in a substitute capacity during the period they are rostered off; and sharing teachers across schools.

Other measures may take several years to bear fruit such as an increase in the number of places on teacher upskilling programmes in priority subjects such as maths, Spanish and physics and a growth in teacher training places. There has also been a “teaching transforms” campaign, aimed at boosting the standing of the profession.

But is it working? It is too early to say for sure. This year’s CAO trends, for example, show an encouraging 11 per cent jump in applications for secondary teaching. But there has been a corresponding drop of 11 per cent in primary teaching. These trends may be driven by demographics, given that pupil numbers are dropping at primary and climbing at second level.

As for principals on the ground, many feel while the Department of Education has not been found wanting in coming up with ideas to tackle staff shortages, solving them will not be easy.

“Short of cloning teachers in a laboratory, they have been proactive in trying to find solutions,” says O’Connor. “This is a real and current crisis. It will pass, due to the way demographics are going, but we need temporary, focused solutions.”

She feels the cost and length of time involved in teacher education is a big barrier. The two-year professional master’s in education, which replaced the one-year HDip, costs €10,000-€15,000. In addition, she says more concurrent degrees – which require four years in college rather than six – are needed.

Fennessy says the full restoration of promotional posts, such as assistant principal posts and additional deputy principal posts in Deis schools, is key.

“It is important for any teacher to see the possibility of career progression... it gives a greater sense of connection to the school and it’s a great opportunity to develop leadership capacity.”