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Local schools fear yet another year of struggling to find substitute teachers

September 12th, 2023 8:00 AM

By Eimear O'Dwyer

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While filling full-time teaching roles has not been a major headache for West Cork principals this year, it is another story when it comes to finding short-term replacements, reports Eimear O’Dwyer

WEST Cork primary schools are concerned about having enough substitute teachers for the upcoming academic term, having grappled with a severe lack of short-term cover last year.   

Barth Harrington, principal of Scoil na mBuachaillí in Clonakilty, said finding substitutes during the last academic year was ‘an absolute nightmare.’ 

While the school has had no problem getting staff this year, finding substitute teachers is still a huge issue, he said. 

Substitute teachers offer short-term cover for classes when full-time teachers are absent owing to illness or personal leave. 

Mr Harrington said there is a Clonakilty supply panel with three teachers that cover 16 schools, but once they are booked, the school must then find its own substitute teachers. 

‘Last year was horrific at times, you just couldn’t get anybody,’ he said, recalling a day when several teachers were absent due to illness. ‘I remember one day we were short six teachers,’ he said.

When there’s a lot of illness around, demand for the supply panel is high, he said, and then you’re in trouble.

Deirdre Lehane, principal of Scoil an Chroí Ró Naofa in Castletownbere, has also secured a full panel of teachers for this year. However, if a teacher is on leave for illness or an accident, finding a substitute is very difficult. 

‘There is a subbing crisis in West Cork,’ she agreed. 

This point was reiterated by Paudie O’Sullivan, principal of Cahermore National School in Allihies, who said that there are no qualified substitute teachers available.  

There were no vacancies in Cahermore this year, so hiring wasn’t an issue. However, there is no one to fill in for his principal release days, of which he should have 37 in an academic year. 

‘It’s a disaster,’ Mr O’Sullivan said,’ the subbing crisis is going on for ten years.’ 

More teachers need to be trained, he said, as the situation is not getting any better. 

‘The Leaving Cert points are sky high and yet there is a total shortage of teachers on the ground, I can’t understand that,’ he said. 

Alan Foley, principal of St Patrick’s Boys’ National School in Skibbereen agreed that the issue lies with the lack of substitutes. 

Alan Foley, princial of St Patrick’s Boys’ National School in Skibbereen.


While the school also hasn’t had any trouble filling posts, he said issues will arise when teachers are absent and cover is needed. ‘When it comes to short-term cover, it could be illness, it could be parental leave, it could be Covid,’ he said, ‘that’s when we find ourselves under pressure.’ 

‘We had a number of days last year where we just couldn’t get any cover,’ he added, ‘we just had to do without and we don’t know what this year’s going to bring yet.’ 

Fiona Giles, principal of Bandon Bridge NS, said the school was luckily able to fill all its vacancies this year, and that is partly down to Dublin’s housing crisis. ‘I do have a number of teachers on staff who left permanent jobs in Dublin to take up fixed-term jobs in their home county, due to the challenges of finding affordable housing in the capital,’ she added.

Beara-based Edel Polly, the Irish National Teacher’s Organisation (INTO) representative for South Cork said that the shortages can be attributed to many factors, including the housing crisis, the elevated cost of living and rent pressures. Because of these issues and a lack of career pathways, there are thousands of registered teachers in Ireland who are not working in Irish schools, she said. 

While 610 places have been added in teacher training programmes, this will not immediately address the shortfall, she said. ‘Much more will have to be done by the government if they’re serious about supporting primary and special education,’ she added.

Meanwhile, for secondary schools in West Cork, it took longer than usual this summer to fill positions. 

Marian Carey, principal of Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí said she had to postpone releasing timetables this summer as she struggled to fill outstanding vacancies in the Bantry school. ‘We’ve had less applicants than we normally would have for positions,’ she said. 

Marian Carey, principal of Pobail Scoil Bheanntraí (Photo: Tony McElhinney)


Recently there were no applications at all for a French maternity leave, she pointed out.

As a result, timetables have had to be manipulated to suit people with subject combinations. ‘I think a lot of West Cork schools are in the same position,’ she said, ‘in some ways we’ve been lucky, we’ve actually managed to get people who are relocating to West Cork who are experienced.’ 

The Bantry secondary school is lucky to have two teachers joining the team this year, having relocated from Dublin, said Ms Carey. 

She believes that the issue is stemming from an increase in travel and teachers taking career breaks. The nature of the contract is another issue, she said, as maternity leave teachers, for instance, are not entitled to holiday pay. 

It’s a fine line between advertising too early for maternity leave positions and leaving it too late, Ms Carey explained. Applicants might accept a job offer and then go on to take on a more permanent or urban role, leaving the principal back at square one.  

Fergal McCarthy principal of Kinsale Community School said that it took a bit longer over the summer to secure a full panel of staff. But thankfully, he said, the school reopened last week with a full complement of teachers and substitutes for the upcoming academic year.

Fergal McCarthy of Kinsale Community School says there are a ‘multiplicity of factors’ leading to the teacher shortages nationally, including accommodation issues.


Mr McCarthy said there are a ‘multiplicity of factors’ leading to the teacher shortages nationally, including accommodation issues. 

The educational system needs to be appropriately funded and teachers need to be paid an appropriate rate to allow them to gain access to the housing market, he said. It’s currently the greatest challenge facing schools, he believes. 

Every day for a child matters, he said, so it is really important to have a qualified teacher in front of the children at all times. Having an unregistered teacher cover classes is unacceptable, he added. 

Mr McCarthy highlighted that the retention of teachers needs to be supported by promoting teaching as an attractive profession. Teaching is one of the most important and positive roles in society, he said. ‘It’s from good quality teaching that our engineers emerge, that our doctors emerge, that people who are critical to a good functioning society emerge.’ 

The crisis in figures

– 91% of post-primary schools experienced recruitment difficulties in the past six months, while 61% had issues retaining staff, according to a recent Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) survey. 

– Three quarters of secondary schools received no applications for an advertised post for the 2022/23 school year and 81% of schools had to employ at least one unqualified teacher, according to the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI). 

– 77% of primary schools surveyed in Cork had to redeploy a special education teacher to cover a mainstream class last year, according to a recent survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network. 

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