Almost 2,500 newly-qualified teachers in Northern Ireland have been left struggling to find work while schools use retired staff for substitute cover, a hard-hitting report has revealed.
Bringing older teachers out of retirement to return to the classroom is wasting about £6m a year of public money, the probe by a spending watchdog revealed. The total cost of providing cover for sick or absent staff in our schools has soared from £38m in 2000-01 to £66m in 2008-09.
Massive savings could have been made if newly qualified teachers were used as substitute teachers, a review by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) added.
The authors of the report said they were “aghast” many schools still favour prematurely retired teachers over their newly-qualified counterparts — and severely rapped the Department of Education for failing to tackle the issue.
MLAs said it was a “tragedy” not just for young teachers but for the schools system — “running counter to a dynamic teaching workforce”.
Their investigation further revealed that although pay for longer-term cover over 20 days is capped, many schools dig into their own budgets to ‘top up’ the payments, again increasing the cost to the taxpayer.
The Stormont body said it is “especially concerned” over the re-employment of teachers given some had retired on the grounds of “efficiency discharge” — expected to save taxpayers’ money.
During the 2008-09 year, 33 such teachers were re-employed to provide cover and the department admitted 22 were former principals and five were former vice-principals.
The report also disclosed that seven years after promising to use a new computerised system at a cost of £1.1m, it is still not fully operational.
Committee chair Paul Maskey said: “With nearly 2,500 newly qualified teachers desperately seeking teaching opportunities, this is a tragedy for our young teachers.
“But what makes this even more reprehensible is that we were told that we could have saved £6m in 2008-09 alone if newly qualified teachers instead of prematurely retired teachers had provided cover.”
Committee members also said they were “staggered” that there are nearly 800 different categories for recording the reasons for substitution — yet more than half of them were lumped together under either “vacant posts” and “other”.
“We were extremely unhappy with how schools record the reasons they need substitute cover,” Mr Maskey added. “There is no standard method of recording and the system, planned for implementation in 2005, is still not fully meeting the needs of all schools which has hindered the ability of the department and the schools sector to properly manage the demand for substitution cover.”
The committee said while it would not be desirable to completely eliminate the use of prematurely retired teachers, which would also breach age discrimination legislation, it made little sense that newly qualified teachers “are kept out of the system.
“This runs counter to what a dynamic teaching workforce should be about”.
Mr Maskey added: “The department, which has responsibility for this issue, did not show the will, following the previous report, to ensure that any teachers who had benefited from enhanced settlements, in particular, were barred from subsequent re-employment as a substitute teacher.”
A spokesman for the Department of Education said: “We welcome the publication of the report and will consider the committee’s recommendations fully. We note the contents of the report and a detailed statement will be prepared which will set out the considered response to the issues raised.”