Thousands of primary and special school pupils to be denied fully registered teachers

The INTO is deeply concerned that the Department of Education (DE) has failed to answer our call for an education recovery plan that would give every child in primary and special schools a fair chance to be taught by a qualified and registered teacher throughout the next school year. The Department has also failed to heed the strong objections made by education unions to proposed changes to Covid leave announced by Government for all public servants from 1 July 2022.

The Department issued Circular 0038/2022 and Information Note 0007/2022 this afternoon.

The INTO has strongly objected to the cessation of substitute cover for a number of approved teacher absences. To avoid compounding the learning losses for pupils, we strongly urged the DE to retain substitute cover for all absences. Our objections have fallen on deaf ears.

The INTO sought an urgent meeting with senior officials in the Department three weeks ago. At that May 26 meeting, the union called for a recovery plan to include the provision of substitute cover for approved teacher absences including all Sick Leave and Family Illness Leave, the continuation of flexible measures relating to the Job Share, Career Break and Parental Leave schemes, truncated recruitment timeframes, the roll-over of unused Covid Learning and Support Scheme (CLASS) hours to the next school year, and the extension of the Supply Panel scheme to all primary and special schools nationwide.

While the Department has acceded to some of our cost-neutral requests regarding job sharing and truncated recruitment timeframes, as well as indicating that many supply panel positions will be retained, today’s announcement effectively signals that on a daily basis from September, thousands of pupils in primary and special schools will be denied access to fully qualified and registered teachers when their own teachers are on approved short-term leave of absence.

The pandemic halted the unsatisfactory practice of subdividing classes into neighbouring classrooms when teachers were absent, which was a failed practice that heightened the scandal of Ireland’s overcrowded classrooms for years before the pandemic hit. In the last two years, flexible leave arrangements introduced to the Parental Leave and Career Break schemes helped schools secure fully qualified and registered substitute teachers, when supply panel teachers were unavailable.

From next September, the Department has signalled its intention to set aside most of the sensible and successful measures negotiated by the INTO that have served schools so well since 2020. This retrograde step makes a nonsense of the action planning done to increase substitute teacher supply in recent years and shows scant regard for our pupils, whose class sizes will remain the highest in the European Union next year.

The Department’s own Chief Inspector’s Report published last March highlights the need to tackle the legacy of Covid-19. It says the following in relation to pupils’ learning and development:

“The closure of schools and settings, and the disruption to learning that children and young people experienced, have had, for many of them, a considerable and immediately negative impact on their learning and progress in several areas of the curriculum.”

“There is evidence, for example, that children’s early linguistic development, students’ social and emotional skills and students’ wellbeing have been adversely affected, as well as the normal progression and maturing that we expect to see in students’ ability and motivation to engage in learning.”

“Students at most risk of educational disadvantage have been disproportionately affected. It is possible, for example, that in the next few years, we may see a slowing or even a reversal of the progress that we have made in Ireland in improving the learning outcomes of pupils/students in DEIS schools vis-à-vis pupils/students in other schools.”

“Enhancing the supply of substitute teachers should continue to be a priority for the Department.”

                                         – PP 302, 306, 307 Chief Inspector’s Report, September 2016 – December 2020

The INTO also raised concerns regarding the further reduction in Covid-19: Special Leave with Pay given that the virus is still prevalent and can affect people differently. We sought the reinstatement of the terms which applied prior to 7 February 2022, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. We outlined our concerns in relation to the removal of extended leave with pay from 1 July 2022, particularly for teachers suffering the effects of Covid and who require a longer period of recuperation.

We again called on the DE to provide guidance to schools in relation to conducting risk assessments including the risk-mitigation measures to be implemented for those classified as very high-risk or pregnant teachers who are high-risk and working in Special Education settings and will be returning to the workplace in September.

We advise any member who may be affected by these arrangements, which will apply to all public servants and are being introduced without agreement from the public service unions, to contact the INTO for advice.

INTO President John Driscoll said:

“I exhort the Minister for Education to re-consider the stripping out of essential substitution supports in order to give all pupils in primary and special schools a fair chance to overcome the negative impact of the pandemic on their progress. Amid the recent signs of significant increases in Covid infections following the emergence of new sub-variants, Government must keep its promise to review its response to Covid-19 to ensure that all who work in crowded settings, including teachers, receive the protections they deserve from their employer who has a duty of care to them.”