A. Hyland. Experience in Ireland: how to develop a teacher of 21st century?

Successive governments of Ireland began to prioritize investment spending on education in the mid- 1960s. Since then, great results have been achieved – teaching in Ireland is regarded as  high status profession and is held in great importance. As a result, the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) programmes in Ireland are very competitive and attract high academic achievers. Five candidates are competing for one available seat. Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education of University College Cork, is sharing the experience of the development of teaching in Ireland.

Where is Ireland at now? Could you briefly describe the situation of the education system in Ireland?

From the point of view of participation rates in full-time education (up to and including university level) and of student success at all levels of the system (primary, secondary and higher education), as measured by the OECD PISA and other tests, Ireland is seen as one of the more successful countries in the EU.  There are many similarities between Ireland and Lithuania. Both countries have similar sized population. While the municipalities play a role in providing and funding schools in Lithuania, teachers are employed by individual schools. This is also the case in Ireland.  However, as the Irish economy has been strong in recent years, public funding for education, and especially for teacher salaries, is more generous in Ireland than in Lithuania.

What is the key to the success of the development of the teaching profession in Ireland?

The Irish people have always held the teaching profession in high regard.  Teaching is regarded as a high status and much-sought profession, and historically, teachers were well paid with salaries and pensions that reflected their relatively high status in society.  During the recession from 2008 to 2014, the salaries of newly qualified teachers were reduced and this has had some negative effect on recruitment.  However, steps have recently been taken to restore the starting salary of teachers, and the teaching profession, through the teacher unions, continue to press for full restoration. A teacher’s salary in Ireland starts at c. €35,000 per annum (before tax) and depending on areas of responsibility, can reach c. €70,000 by the time a teacher retires.  A teachers’ pension (for which a teacher is eligible after 40 years of teaching) is 50% of his/her final salary. Like other public servants, teachers in Ireland have traditionally retired when they reach 65 years of age.

What is the key to the success in setting up of Centres of Excellence of Teacher Education in Ireland?  What challenges occurred along the way?

Before 2012, there were more than 20 different providers (Colleges of Education, Universities and Institutes of Technology) of ITT programmes in Ireland.  Following a review by an international team in 2012, led by Professor Pasi Sahlberg of Finland, the Irish government decided to consolidate the existing providers into six Centres of Excellence – based in six universities.  A timeline of approximately five years was envisaged for the consolidation and in 2018 Professor Sahlberg was invited back to review progress since 2012.  His report of 2018 was in general, positive.  He found that three of the six centres had successfully completed the consolidation; two other centres are almost completed and the sixth centre had not progressed significantly since that centre included two of Ireland’s biggest and oldest universities. Both of those universities argued that they should constitute two separate centres.  Having visited all the centres, Professor Sahlberg agreed with this view and has recommended that the government concede that there should be seven centres. 

The success of the exercise was due to some extent to the acceptance that universities enjoy a high degree of academic autonomy under the universities’ legislation. Therefore the process of consolidation differed from one Centre to another.  Institutional Leadership was a key factor in the success of the consolidation as well as the availability of additional incentives (including government funding and extra resources) to those Centres which embraced the change most effectively.

What is required to build a high-quality teaching profession?

A high-quality teaching profession attracts high academic achievers, who are motivated, who really want to be teachers and who have demonstrated success in their earlier academic career (e.g. at secondary school level). Where society holds the teaching profession in high esteem, and agrees that they should be well paid, this contributes to a high-quality teaching profession.  It is a virtuous circle – the level of salary and the status of the profession are inextricably linked.  So relatively high salaries attract high-achieving students, and in turn, society and governments are willing to pay good salaries and provide good conditions of employment for high-quality teachers. 

What measures have been taken to attract the best graduates to study teaching in Ireland?

Teaching is highly regarded in Ireland and is a relatively well-paid profession. Most student teachers enter ITT directly from secondary school.  Their results in the Leaving Certificate (the national examination which all students sit at the end of secondary school) determine whether they will get a place in an ITT programme.  Usually, only the top 20% (in terms of Leaving Certificate achievement) are successful in their application to enter concurrent ITT programmes.   Similarly, only high-achieving university graduates are accepted onto consecutive programmes.

What are the main drivers for effective teacher workforce planning?

Some countries have engaged in teacher workforce planning on a systematic and routine basis. Other countries have undertaken planning only when they found that there was an imbalance between teacher supply and demand. In Lithuania and Ireland, the motivation to develop a teacher forecasting model came about as a result of the realisation that there was a shortage of teachers of some subjects and an oversupply of teachers of other subjects.  Lithuania should be proud of MOSTA’s success in developing a flexible interactive computerised system of teacher planning in 2018.  This development was possible because the Ministry decided that a planning tool should be developed; the statistical data to enable such a tool to be developed (e.g. subject specialisations of teachers; the number of hours they teach each subject; their age, municipality etc) were all available, and the Ministry and other stakeholders co-operated in making their information available and in working with MOSTA where appropriate. This model has the potential to be used by other countries and systems and is sufficiently sophisticated to take account of changes and innovations in any system.

Why is forecasting necessary to ensure sustainable teacher training, recruitment and turnover?

When there is an over-supply of teachers, inevitably there will be teacher unemployment.  While unemployment may be limited to some subjects and not others, the general public may not realise this and young people (on the advice of their parents and peers) may be reluctant to consider teaching as a career.

On the other hand, if there is a shortage of teachers, schools may find it necessary to employ teachers who are not qualified to teach the subject they are asked to teach, or alternatively, the school may not be in a position to offer some subjects.  Over time, this can have serious implications for employers and ultimately for the country’s economy, and everyone suffers in the long term.

A good forecasting model and the willingness of government and policy-makers to take account of the implications of the model in planning teacher recruitment, can avoid the negative effects of an imbalance in teacher supply and demand.

What are your main observations about the teaching profession in Lithuania?

While there are some excellent and committed teachers in the school system in Lithuania, teachers’ salaries in Lithuania are low by EU standards.  The proposed reform of the system as announced by the previous Minister for Education appears to go some way to solving the problem of low salaries.  Inevitably if salaries are relatively low, in comparison to other employments, young people will not opt for a career in teaching.

It is also notable that the teaching profession is an aging one in Lithuania and that is unusual by Irish standards.  The fact that teachers do not have to retire at the age of 65 is a factor in the age profile of the profession.  It was a surprise to see that there are still teachers in their 70s and even in their 80s in some schools.

Could you please share your recommendations for making the Lithuanian education system more effective?

Greater investment in the education system would ultimately lead to an improvement in the system. Investment in education impacts not only on the calibre of the profession and therefore the quality of teaching, but ultimately it impacts on the national economy and so can contribute to a reduction in emigration, an increase in the population and an increase in the overall wealth of the country and of its population.

Fifty years ago, Ireland had many problems – low participation in higher education; a relatively poorly educated workforce; high emigration and one of the lowest GDPs in the OECD.  Following a major report on Investment in Education in the mid- 1960s, successive governments began to prioritise spending on education.  A policy of amalgamation of small schools in rural areas was implemented; school transport was introduced; and free and subsidised secondary and higher education was made available.

Ireland’s membership of the EEC (now the EU) from 1972 onwards was an important factor in the improvement of Irish education.  Like Lithuania today, during the early years of its membership of the EEC, Ireland benefited from the availability of Structural funds for a number of its educational initiatives.  Ireland also learned from the success of other countries. Investment in education ultimately led to economic growth in Ireland and this growth has been re-established in recent years, following the banking crisis of 2008 to 2014.

In more recent years, in an effort to bridge the gap between the academic achievement of relatively disadvantaged young people and their more economically advantaged peers, additional resources are now made available for schools in disadvantaged areas.  The gap has been somewhat narrowed but the challenge of providing equality of educational outcome for all remains elusive.