The Minister for Education has said she has no plans to allow schools to "bank" special education teaching hours that they cannot currently provide to children due to the chronic teacher shortage.
Primary school principals have appealed for this measure, which was in place during the pandemic, to be reintroduced in order to lessen the damage they say is currently being caused to some of the country’s most vulnerable children.
Across the country, but especially in Dublin and surrounding counties, primary school principals say they are being forced to take special education teachers away from their pupils so that they can replace absent colleagues or fill vacant positions in mainstream classes.
They are doing this despite the fact that the Department of Education said they should not.
Principals say the teacher shortage crisis has left them with no option.
The issue is the main talking point at the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) which has been taking place this week in Killarney.
Student teachers will become free to fill vacant posts in schools next May and June of as their study programmes end for the year.
The IPPN wants schools to be allowed to bank or save the hours that they cannot currently provide to children with additional needs, to use at that time, so that some attempt can be made to limit the damage being caused to children who are not now receiving the allocation they are entitled to.
However, attending the IPPN conference this morning, Norma Foley said her department was not looking at reintroducing banked hours "at this point".
There was some laughter and muttering and groans from school principals when the minister addressed the issue of the shortage of teachers in schools during her address to the conference floor.
Some teachers laughed too when she acknowledged "challenges" related to teacher panels that are supposed to be providing substitute teachers to schools around the country.
Some of the panels in Dublin are empty or only half full because teachers cannot be found to fill the posts.
Nationwide, 83% of schools have had to redeploy special education teachers to mainstream classes according to a survey that the IPPN carried out last month.
The survey found 27% of principals nationwide said they could not fill all the posts in their schools and in Dublin that rose to two out of every three schools.
One Dublin school told RTÉ News that out of nine special education teachers, just two were working in the role, with the rest covering for teacher vacancies and absences in mainstream classes.
A Louth school principal told RTÉ News that out of five special education teachers, two positions were vacant and could not be filled despite advertising the roles twice recently, and two other SEN teachers were teaching mainstream classes.
"There are just no teachers out there", that principal said.
Minister Foley said the department had made "extraordinary strides" in special education, spending more than 27% of its budget in the area.
She said more than 40,000 professionals were working in the area.
"There is evidence to suggest that banking hours does not always work for students, that for example they are better off receiving supports at the given time", she said.
"So we are not looking at it at this point".
She said it was "not fully accurate" that children were not receiving their special needs allocation now.
Asked about substitute supply panels that are empty because positions cannot be filled, she said while there were challenges "the vast majority are working and working well".
"We have more staff working now as a consequence of the measures we have brought in", she said.
Principals attending the conference however said the minister was "bamboozling" them with numbers and statistics, but that nothing was changing for them.
They pointed out that the Department is saving money when they cannot fill posts or find substitute teachers.
RTÉ News asked the minister how much money was being saved by the Department as a result of vacant teaching posts but Ms Foley declined to address the issue.