Thursday, 1 February 2018

Ceisteanna (8)

Maureen O'Sullivan


8. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the aims of his directive to curtail career breaks due to a shortage of teachers; his views on whether this is an appropriate step to tackle the shortage; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4884/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

My question relates to the need for a directive to schools regarding career breaks due to the shortage of substitute teachers to fill in for those who are on career break.

In the past two years I have successfully hired 5,000 extra teachers. We are hiring more teachers than at any other time in the State's history. As the Deputy has indicated, issues have arisen. The provisions of the career break scheme are set out in chapter eight, Terms and Conditions of Employment for Registered Teachers in Recognised Primary and Post Primary Schools, which is published on my Department’s website. A career break is period of special leave and the main objectives of this scheme is for employers, wherever possible, to facilitate applicants in the areas of personal development, voluntary service overseas, to accompany a spouse or partner on a diplomatic or military posting, for education, public representation, child care or dependent care, and self-employment.

In response to reported difficulties by schools with regard to recruiting substitute teachers, my Department issued notification on 26 January that it was suspending the restrictions regarding substitution limits for those on a career break for the current school year. Prior to this decision the limits were 90 days in primary schools and 300 hours in post-primary schools. The notification also reminded employers that “in considering applications for career breaks, the welfare and educational needs of the pupils shall take precedence over all other considerations and accordingly, must take account of the availability of appropriate qualified replacement teachers". I understand from representations received that suspending the restrictions as outlined will provide immediate assistance to some schools finding it difficult to recruit qualified substitute teachers.

I thank the Minister for that very clear statement. I have spoken to him about this on foot of my experience as chair of a board of management and it is a situation which other schools are also facing. Boards are in a difficult position. They want to be flexible with teachers who come to the board seeking a career break but it has been extremely difficult. Today is the deadline for applications for this year. I know that there will be boards which will dread that first meeting in February where these decisions will have to be made. What the Minister has said here is very clear. Time will tell if suspending those restrictions will have the effect that the Minister says it will have. There are so many demands on boards of management, which are voluntary. This directive and the Minister's input could be very helpful in resolving the inordinate number of career break requests that some schools are getting.

The context of the career break scheme is clear. Its purposes are set out in the answer I just gave. The scheme is not for purposes such as switching career. The obligation is on the board of management to decide on the matter. I am happy to leave the arrangement where it is, namely, with the decision made at local level, but the boards must bear in mind the needs of the children and the boards' capacity to replace the teacher.

On the wider issue of the problem regarding substitution, people on career break can be part of a solution. There are also significant number, in fact a majority, of teachers who are retiring under the age of 60 years. If they remain registered, they can provide substitution hours. Student teachers in their final year of study can be considered for substitution. We are looking at all sources of supply. I have established a teaching supply group to monitor other possible actions.

The difficulty in schools, particularly primary schools, has been driven by pay inequality, which the Minister says he is addressing, as well as the cost of housing and accommodation, especially in Dublin. That has also been driving the request for career breaks.

On the Teaching Council and registration, I know of teachers who retired under the age of 60 years whose registration with the Teaching Council lapsed, or in some cases they may not have thought they would return to the classroom. The Teaching Council could be encouraged to speed up the process, particularly in the cases of teachers who have been registered in the past but let it lapse because they did not think they would come back to teaching but now there is a need for them to return.

I assure the Deputy that the Teaching Council will be involved in this group. The difficulty with the question of career break is that if someone has a permanent post and they leave, it can only be filled with a temporary post, which is less attractive for the school and the teacher. Career breaks need to be thought out by the school for that reason.

I acknowledge there are pressures in housing and so on, but we are trying to manage this. The difficulty arises in part because we are recruiting such a high number of posts. We are recruiting 5,000 teachers in two years, which is a significant rate of recruitment. It might have been the case that there were more teachers who were interested in part-time posts who now have access to full-time posts. That also changes the environment. There are several issues that must be monitored. I am also making changes in initial education to try to improve the supply.