Education Minister Norma Foley has no plans to restore the tuition being lost to primary school pupils with special needs because of the current teacher shortage.
upils with special needs are the biggest losers of the current staffing shortages because their support teachers are regularly being diverted to cover mainstream classes.
Primary principals want the restoration of the “banked hours” scheme that ran at the height of Covid, which allows for the restoration of tuition time later in the school year.
But Ms Foley told reporters attending the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) today: “We are not looking at it at this point”.
She said, where possible, it was best if schools looked at other measures before redeploying a special education teacher, “that is what we are advocating”. Principals say they only do it as a last resort.
A recent survey by the IPPN found that more than four in five – 87pc – of primary principals nationwide have redeployed a special education teacher to stand in in a mainstream class.
Schools are struggling on two fronts – there is a shortage of teachers for long term and fixed tern positions, which has left more than one in four primary schools not filling its approved staffing allocation. It’s even worse in Dublin – with two in three schools in that position – Kildare and Wicklow.
There is also a lack of subs to provide cover for short-term absences, forcing principals who are hit with an unexpected absence to look at other options to cover a class, such a redeploying the special education teacher. Almost nine in 10 schools, 87pc, nationwide have challenges recruiting subs.
Later, at the conference, Ms Foley spoke about how other sectors, such as hospitality and healthcare, were facing similar recruitment challenges.
She did address the teacher shortage issue but the focus of her speech was on initiatives she has introduced to boost school staffing levels and increase resources for the education system.
Ms Foley says there are now “more staff now in the system than ever before, as a consequence of the measures that that we have brought in”
They include improvements in the pupil-teacher ratio, teacher supply panels for cluster of schools to provide access to subs in their locality, and increased investment in special education, the budget for which in 2023 is €2.2bn. There are now 151 supply panels, covering approximately 2,800 schools.
In terms of meeting the need for subs, the minister spoke of the flexibilities in the career break and job sharing schemes to allow more teachers to take up short term vacancies.
But the reality on the ground is that schools still cannot find enough teachers for either long-term or short-term term positions.
Acknowledging the challenges around teacher supply, Ms Foley said she wanted to “commend schools for the innovative ways in which they are working through the various challenges around teacher supply.”
She told the estimated 900 principals in the hall that her department was committed to helping principals to address these challenges and was running a comprehensive programme of work to support the supply of teachers.
But there was a rumble through the hall at one point during her speech, when she cited expanded the SubSeeker recruitment portal, which now has 12,000 teachers registered, as offering a solution.
Broadcaster Anton Savage, who was chairing the session, intervened to advise the audience that IPPN CEO Páiric Clerkin would address issues directly with Ms Foley after she spoke .
Later Mr Clerkin told the minister that it was positive that 12,000 teachers were now registered on SubSeeker, but added: “We have significant problems, we have long-term positions unfilled”.
Mr Clerkin said: “No one wants to ring parents to say they have to send a class home.”
He said there was money currently unused because of the lack of teachers.
There was applause from the hall, when he said: “We need to sit around the table, we need to see how we can reinvest that money, to ensure that our most vulnerable special needs children are looked after”.
Pressed by reporters about her reluctance to reintroduce the “banked hours” scheme Ms Foley said: “We must ask ourselves what that looks like. That means that children who have additional needs will not receive the supports and the additional supports they require at a given time.”