It's not something individual second-level schools want to talk about publicly, but the teacher shortage is biting badly in many post-primary schools across the country, most especially in schools in urban areas such as in and around the capital.

Three suburban Dublin schools spoke to RTÉ News, but they didn’t want to be identified. Second-level schools compete against each other for students and they don’t want parents to know just how badly short they are of teachers. They don’t want parents to know, even though they themselves know that the shortage is affecting all schools in their areas, not just theirs.

"There are just no substitutes out there," one principal told RTÉ News. "The teacher shortage is now across all subjects, it is impacting right across the school."

Substitute cover is more necessary than ever before, given the fact that any teacher with Covid must stay at home for seven days. Also, the days of someone with a bad cold just soldiering on are gone.

The accounts given by the principals of these three schools are virtually identical.

They all say they are relying heavily on student teachers, too heavily. Second-level teachers must complete a two-year Masters programme (PME) in order to qualify. For a time during that programme they must work eight hours per week in a school. Those students who are currently based in schools are being used to provide substitute cover on top of those hours.

"I don’t know what we would do without our PMEs. They are working flat out," says one principal.

Special education

The schools say they are being forced to take teachers away from special education to cover in mainstream classes.

"Small group support, one to one support, all that is virtually gone," says another principal. "All the lovely stuff we used to be able to do, such as co-teaching, is gone."

Co-teaching is when two teachers work together in the same classroom. It means students are more likely to get the attention that suits them best.

Without these special interventions schools feel it is inevitable that some students will fall behind. And they are aware of the fact that many students are already behind, as a result of disruption to learning during the pandemic.

One school principal says Maths in particular is an area where they are having great difficult finding qualified teachers, but all areas are affected.

"I advertised four times, including right through the summer, for one position, but I couldn’t fill it," says one.

"I’ve advertised three times for a teacher and I haven’t got one application," says another.

Student teachers

These principals worry about the impact the shortage is having on the student teachers they are relying on to fill the gaps. They say these students need the time to prepare quality classes for their eight hours of teaching, and to reflect on how they are teaching and how students are responding. But instead "every free second they have" student teachers are filling in at short notice for absent staff.

"This is not what their placement should be about. They should be observing other teachers. They need time and space to learn. This is not the right training ground for them."

These principals worry about the long-term impact of this on their trainee teachers.

Retention

Some school principals are also concerned by the loss of teachers in their 30s. Teachers in that age-group, they say, are leaving jobs in the capital. They want to buy homes and settle down and they know they can’t afford to do this in Dublin.

It is a brain drain they say.

"We are losing that lovely bunch of teachers, who have gained that experience.

"They will move home for 15 hours per week, rather than live in Dublin on full hours (22 hours per week)."

Consultation

Today the Department of Education and the Teaching Council hosted a forum on teacher supply with representatives from school management bodies, teacher unions and other organisations.

But the teacher trade unions were not impressed. ASTI General Secretary Kieran Christie called for radical action to encourage teachers to come back to Ireland and to ensure teachers currently living in Ireland stay.

"This would include offering such teachers immediate permanent posts and a rebuilding of the promotion structure within schools that was dismantled some years ago.

"The system is at tipping point with many schools unable to offer the full range of subjects or employing unqualified personnel to teach in our classrooms," he said.

The Teachers' Union of Ireland called for a range of measures including a reduction to the length of time it takes to qualify to become a second-level teacher. After their degree, trainee teachers must spend two years studying a Masters. They pay fees of around €6,000 each year.

The union says that too many would be teachers cannot afford to undertake a four-year degree followed by a two-year PME. It dismissed today’s meeting as "depressingly cosmetic".

The Department of Education points to a range of measures it has introduced in very recent years. It has for instance lifted restrictions which prevent teachers from working more than 22 hours per week in their school. Now teachers are allowed to work up to 20 hours per term extra on top of that.

But measures such as that don’t go far enough, those working in schools say.

It looks like they will have to struggle with the impact of the teacher shortages for some time to come.