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Dubai v Dublin: UAE and Ireland battle for teachers

Irish teachers are in demand both in the Gulf and at home

Experience abroad is not included when teachers return to Ireland, which can impact their salary Teacher pupil classroom teaching Shutterstock/DGL Images
Experience abroad is not included when teachers return to Ireland, which can affect their salary

This week the Irish Independent – Ireland’s largest-selling daily newspaper – ran a lead story with the headline: “The grass isn’t always greener abroad, says Dublin teacher who moved back from Dubai“.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sarah Robinson spent two years teaching in the UAE and told the newspaper that teachers in Dubai schools are heavily micro-managed and, despite free housing and a tax-free salary, she did not save as much as she had hoped.

“I know a lot of people who only lasted until Christmas and went back home,” she told readers.

The headline will be bad news for the UAE’s education providers, who need to recruit 30,000 more teachers by the end of the decade as the sector grows to accommodate an influx of new residents.

The Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan forecasts that the emirate’s population will hit 5.8 million by 2040, up from 3.3 million in 2022. 

And it is not just the UAE. The wider Gulf needs to build 1,127 more schools by 2027, advisory firm Alpen Capital reported in August. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education announced in July it had vacancies for 11,551 teachers.

Ireland and other anglophone countries are key sources of teachers for schools across the Middle East.

But the problem is, the skill shortage is just as bad in Ireland. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Into) carried out a survey in October and estimated there were 3,500 teaching vacancies in Ireland, with about 2,000 unfilled for at least six to 12 months.

In a bid to fill the gaps, Joe McHugh, the then minister for education, led a trade mission to the Gulf in June 2019 and held meetings with teachers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to try to persuade them to return home.

In a statement to AGBI, the Irish Department of Education said it was still actively looking to encourage more Irish teachers to return home. Evidence of this, it said, was the fact that the government provided additional funding of €41,000 ($44,000) to an online portal set up to help those wanting to return.

Teaching in the Gulf, Ciara was able to pay for her wedding in cash and save for a deposit for a home in Ireland

However, Irish teaching unions have warned that not enough is being done, especially as the cost of living and low wages are forcing young teachers to head abroad.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said one of the main stumbling blocks to filling teaching jobs is that if members return to work in an Irish school, overseas experience is not taken into account and teachers are forced to start at an entry-level salary scale.

“This affects the overwhelming majority of those who may wish to return to Ireland from countries such as the UAE,” said David Waters, president of the TUI.

He pointed to a survey in October of principals and deputy principals in 104 second level schools which found that 90 percent of respondents believed more needs to be done to tackle bureaucratic barriers preventing Irish teachers from returning.

“Now more than ever we need to dismantle the barriers and deterrents that are preventing them from returning home to use their expertise within our own education system,” Waters said.

But for those who do return the experience may not be positive. Ciara, from Kildare – about an hour’s drive from Dublin – worked as a teacher in the UAE and Qatar. She moved back to Ireland but found it challenging and less rewarding, so she has decided to move back to the UAE.

“There is very little to entice them [teachers] back [to Ireland] at the moment,” Ciara said.

Among other challenges, Ireland, like the UK, is suffering from an acute housing shortage. Teaching in the Gulf, Ciara was able to pay for her wedding in cash and save for a deposit for a home in Ireland. After moving home for a while, the high cost of living in Ireland forced her and her family to decide to head back to the Middle East. 

The Department of Education pointed out that despite the challenges teachers face, data showed that the number of Irish school graduates who have applied to enter the profession and teach at secondary school level increased by 14 percent in 2023.

However, how many of them will stay in Ireland when they qualify? And how many will be enticed to make the move to countries such as the UAE?

“Thousands of teachers tell us that the only way they can move out of their parents’ homes is to emigrate,” said John Boyle, general secretary of Into. “This is wrong. It’s time for the government to step up and do better for our teachers.”

And so, the battle for Irish teachers warms up.

Shane McGinley is news editor of AGBI

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