Primary school principals in Dublin city say the chronic shortage of teachers in the capital is having a "devastating" impact on vulnerable children including those with special educational needs.

They have told RTÉ News that it is now almost impossible to source substitute teachers to cover for staff absences, that they cannot fill even permanent teaching positions, and that some have been forced to use Special Needs Assistants to step in to replace absent teachers as an alternative to sending children home.

An autism class that was supposed to open last month is lying empty in one school because a teacher cannot be found for it.

A panel that is supposed to supply substitute teachers to schools across a large part of the south city is empty, because no qualified teachers can be found to fill the positions.

One school has described how it advertised and interviewed for two permanent teaching posts three times in recent months, but each time the people appointed to the positions subsequently contacted the school to say they could not take up the jobs because they could not find accommodation in the capital.

The principals say children are falling through the cracks

"Do they stay in Dublin and make peace with the fact that they will never be able to afford a mortgage, that they will struggle to find rented accommodation. They are going to Dubai, Australia and Canada, and I don't blame them."

Schools across Dublin 8 and 12, as well as elsewhere across the capital have told RTÉ News of a litany of problems arising from the teacher shortage.

At Our Lady of Lourdes primary school in Dublin 8, principal Tonya Hanly took delivery this week of furniture for her new autism class.

There has been a chronic shortage of autism places across the capital and the school had hoped to open its second specialised class last month. But the room is lying empty.

"I have advertised five times now, but I just cannot find a teacher," Tonya says. "I have two SNAs ready to go. We have six children waiting, two of whom are currently without a school place, at home."

This is just one of four teaching posts that this 22-teacher school cannot fill, despite advertising on numerous occasions.

The situation is similar just a few kilometres away at Our Lady of the Wayside school in Dublin 12.

This 13-teacher school also has four unfilled vacancies. "We are currently advertising for the fifth time," principal Róisín O'Shea says. But she does not expect to receive any applications.

When they advertised during the summer they did receive applications, she says, "but they all pulled out at short notice before the interviews".

"They told me on the phone that they had found positions closer to home."

"Do they stay in Dublin and make peace with the fact that they will never be able to afford a mortgage, that they will struggle to find rented accommodation ... They are going to Dubai, Australia and Canada, and I don't blame them."

Victoria McQuaid, principal at Synge St Primary School, describes how this week her teacher shortage became so chronic that she was forced to ask SNAs at the school to step in to replace a teacher.

Ms McQuaid stresses that she herself was in the room at all times doing her own administrative work as principal, and adds:

"The choices are, phone the parents and say 'we're very sorry but we don’t have a teacher’, or just dig deep and work together and that is what everyone is doing. The SNAs are filling the gap rather than send those children home."

But she is concerned, not least by the fact that she cannot pay those SNAs for the extra burden they are taking on. SNAs are paid considerably less than teachers.

"They’re doing it because they love their children, but they are not getting rewarded for this."

As primary schools close for the Halloween break, Ms McQuaid says the situation is "frightening" and she cannot see an end to it.

Supply panel

St James's Primary School, or 'Jamebo' as it’s called locally, is what is known as a "base school". A supply panel of substitute teachers is supposed to operate out of the school, serving 24 schools in the wider Dublin 8 and 12 locality. But the panel’s seven positions are all empty.

It is one of 151 panels established in very recent years as one of a range of measures introduced to alleviate the substitute shortage in schools. Twenty-nine of the panels, with 183 posts between them, are supposed to serve 487 schools in Dublin.

But they cannot serve schools if they are empty.

Principal Ciarán Cronin described the situation as "dreadful".

"There are seven jobs but I cannot get a single teacher for any of them. I have advertised four times and I have not even held interviews. I received no applications at all apart from one or two from people who were not qualified and are not eligible."

In his own school, Mr Cronin is also short two full-time teachers.

Ciarán Cronin says the situation is 'dreadful'

All of these school leaders, as well as others who have spoken to RTÉ News, say the main causes of the crisis are the acute shortage of accommodation in the capital and its cost, coupled with the prohibitive cost of transport.

They all described losing permanent teachers recently because those teachers found jobs closer to where they live, outside of Dublin. They say newly qualified teachers, especially, can no longer afford the cost of commuting into the capital, nor can they afford to live in Dublin.

Schools say they are being forced to use special needs teachers to teach mainstream classes, but that means that vulnerable children are not getting the supports they need and are entitled to.

"I have advertised five times since July, and I received not one single application. There are just no qualified teachers out there."

Róisín O’Shea says Our Lady of the Wayside school has been left with no option but to deploy special needs teachers and even its home school liaison (HSL) teacher to teach mainstream classes.

HSL teachers are assigned to schools serving significantly disadvantaged communities. They work to help families to support their children through school.

"We have children who have additional behavioural needs, children who are supposed to be getting training in their accessible technology, children who have diagnosed learning needs. They are all slipping through the net and it's so frustrating and heartbreaking and upsetting for everybody, it's just devastating."

Ms O'Shea described the school’s decision to redeploy its home school liaison teacher into the classroom as "a very very upsetting, frightening" one, but she says the school had to prioritise health and safety, and teaching and learning in the classroom.

The acute teacher shortage is being felt equally right across the capital and school principals say every parent at every school across Dublin should be concerned.

"....I'm just so worried that we are failing our children, the system at the moment is failing our children."

At another base supply panel school on the northside of the city, St Peter’s National School, principal Ray Ryan says four out of seven positions on his panel remain unfilled.

"I have advertised five times since July, and I received not one single application. There are just no qualified teachers out there," he says.

This means that 25 schools across his catchment area have only three substitute teachers to draw on from the panel, instead of seven.

Mr Ryan says this year has been "a disaster". Like many others he is relying on student teachers to fill in the gaps in his own school, but they have to balance subbing with their classes and studies.

"The children have a different teacher every day because I can’t get the same person for more than one day at a time," he says.

The disruption to children is huge, as is the damage being wrought, school principals say.

"Our children here are some of the most wonderful children I've ever met," Tonya Hanly – whose school serves a disadvantaged community - says, "but you know a lot of them experienced adverse childhood experiences every day".

"This is their safe space, they need their special education teacher, they need their class teacher, and I’m just so worried that we are failing our children, the system at the moment is failing our children," she says.

Schools have been told in recent years to place a key focus on raising standards in literacy and numeracy but Ms Hanly says her school is now unable to run special programmes aimed at improving standards in reading and maths, because of its teacher shortage.

Solutions

As to causes and solutions, schools describe a kind of "perfect storm". The legacy of Covid means newly qualified teachers are more likely to be living at home, outside of Dublin, now. The Teaching Council is blamed for not making it easier for foreign qualified teachers to become recognised here. Schools want the Department of Education to lift restrictions on the number of days retired teachers, or those on career breaks, can work for.

But at the heart of the crisis is the very big problem of the cost and shortage of accommodation in the capital, as well as the cost of commuting. Newly-qualified teachers especially can no longer afford to live in the capital, or to travel into it, it seems.

Róisín O’Shea says young teachers especially have a dilemma: "Do they stay in Dublin and make peace with the fact that they will never be able to afford a mortgage, that they will struggle to find rented accommodation, and struggle to pay huge prices if they find it? Or do they say 'okay we are off' - they are going to Dubai, Australia, and Canada, and I don’t blame them."

Measures have been introduced in recent years to tackle the teacher shortage. The establishment of the substitute supply panels was one of them. Last week, Minister for Education Norma Foley said her department was working on additional measures, including reducing restrictions which limit the hours that retired teachers can work in schools.

But when teachers turn down jobs in the capital because they can’t afford to live there, it’s clear the problem is a much deeper one, whose solutions lie far beyond the scope of the Department of Education.