Minister for Education Norma Foley will meet senior officials from the country's teacher education colleges tomorrow with a view to establishing whether final-year students training to be teachers can play a greater role in supporting schools during the current schools' staffing crisis.

The meeting comes as primary teachers' union the INTO, and a body representing primary school principals, have called for an increased role for student teachers in subbing in schools.

The INTO wants up to 500 third- and fourth-year students (out of a student base of 4,000) to be permitted to substitute for five days between now and Christmas. The National Principals Forum has called for all fourth-year teaching students to be added to an online substitute teacher platform.

However, a senior source in one teacher education college has told RTÉ News that student teachers are "already holding up the system", working in schools either through their college placements or employed directly as subs.

An academic working at a different college also doubted that there is much "wriggle room" when it comes to fourth-year students, telling RTÉ News "the minister might be looking for a silver bullet that isn't there".

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This person said that a survey of fourth-year students indicated that they were already out subbing in schools, with students reporting that they had last year worked an average of 42 days each in schools.

This person said that they receive at least 20 phone calls a day from schools desperate to source students to cover for absent teachers.

Today this included a Dublin school that said it had eight teachers absent.

Senior school managers have said that the teacher shortage crisis has reached levels never seen before, and they have warned that it is set to get even worse.

Many teachers and other school staff are absent for reasons related to the pandemic, whether sick themselves or isolating as a result of being a household contact or with symptoms.

Schools are being forced to send children home because no teacher can be found, and children with additional needs are losing out on tuition as their dedicated teachers are being used to replace absent colleagues and teach full classes instead.

Primary school

DCU

Around 450 third-year student teachers from DCU are currently out on placements in schools. Fourth-year students are due to do placements in schools early in the new year.

However, a source in the college said that in reality around half of fourth-year students at the university are already subbing in schools.

The college is understood to be "turning a blind eye" to absences from lectures given the unprecedented crisis facing the sector.

Mary Immaculate

At another large teacher education college, Mary Immaculate in Limerick, 470 final-year student primary teachers have just completed school placements and are not scheduled to return to campus until the end of January. This technically means that they are now available for subbing work.

Third-year students at the college are due to finish lectures on 3 December. However, they face two weeks of exams later in the month. They too are not due to return to campus until late January.

Hibernia

Private teacher training college Hibernia said that 90% of its more than 1,000 primary teaching post graduate students have indicated that they would make themselves available for subbing in schools.

The college said that these students - who are based all around the country - have just finished placements in schools.

Maynooth University

Maynooth University has told RTÉ News that it has already introduced a number of flexibilities after a previous meeting with Department of Education officials on the issue.

This included freeing up fourth and third year students to sub in schools on Fridays.

Its 65 fourth years are now out in schools on placements.

The college says they will be available for subbing work for two and a half weeks in the run up to Christmas.

The INTO has called for other additional measures to address the crisis, including: that all teaching council registered teachers currently paid by the Department of Education - including school inspectors - need to be made available to provide substitution; that "negative impacts" on retired teacher pensions are removed to encourage more to substitute; the fast tracking of registration for teachers qualified outside the State; the equalising of subbing payments for teachers employed after 2011.

Separately, the Department of Education has told schools that all in-service training for teachers, that requires substitute cover while a teacher is absent, should be postponed.

It said it would give a further update on the matter next week.