Worlds of Education

Photo: Sarah Farhat / World Bank
Photo: Sarah Farhat / World Bank

UNICEF’s Innocenti Report on teacher absenteeism in Africa: The wrong approach at the worst time

published 29 October 2021 updated 29 October 2021
written by:

This year, as the education community around the world gathered to mark World Teachers’ Day (5th October) and celebrate teachers for their dedication to duty and contribution to quality education for all, Twitter users were greeted by a message from UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti, sharing their recent report on teacher absenteeism, Time to Teach.

The tweet was published while educators globally were paying tribute to the gallant women and men in our classrooms who have passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of Education International’s Always Present event.

"We should work together to strengthen the systems and programmes that support teachers to be where they want to be: with their students in a quality learning environment."

Having read UNICEF’s Time to Teach Report, published in 2020 and about their ongoing programmes on ‘teacher attendance and time on task’ in various African countries, I was left with no choice, but to point out the significant flaws in the project’s approach.

The deficiencies of the learning poverty premise

The report starts by lamenting ‘the global learning crisis’ and describing African children as ‘the learning poor’, defined as learners who fail to read or understand a simple text at the end of primary school. I wonder how many children or parents would welcome that kind of negative labelling; it impales the dignity of the African child.

The concept of so-called learning poverty, first proposed by the World Bank, reduces education to reading a simple text, which is grossly insufficient to prepare young people for life. Education is much broader than narrow measures in reading and writing.

Quality education, as envisaged in various United Nations treaties, global and regional commitments such as SDG 4, prepares young people for life and for decent work. It equips young people with the necessary knowledge, skills, competences, capabilities, values, ethics and attitudes to meet present and future challenges. It encapsulates sustainable development and global citizenship, contributing to the full development of the individual, our countries’ economies, the preservation of our humanity and that of our planet.

Given its limited focus [1], the learning poverty goal ignores such higher order skills as problem solving, creativity, innovation, adaptability, and many more.

Flawed definition of teacher absenteeism

The Time to Teach study classifies teachers who are off-sick and on official or administrative school duties as absent. It goes even further to include teachers who are at school but not in the classroom or are in the classroom and ‘not teaching’ as absent. Surely, an accurate measurement of teacher absenteeism cannot include these categories, and it defies logic to say that teachers who are actually at school and in the classroom are ‘absent’. No wonder, the study claims an exaggerated teacher absenteeism rate of up to 45% in sub-Saharan Africa.

In practice, this kind of narrow approach means that teachers who are marking examinations or undertaking professional development programmes, for example, would be classified as absent and ‘short-changing kids’.

No wonder, in one of its recommendations the report advises governments to only allow teacher professional development to take place during school holidays or weekends. Teacher professional development is fundamental for quality teaching and learning and should be an integral and constant part of education systems. Furthermore, some of the most effective teacher development programmes involve real in-class-teaching, observation and feedback from colleagues, something which would not be possible if relegated to school holidays or weekends. In addition, many governments would not pay teachers for undertaking professional development programmes during school holidays or weekends.

The Time to Teach study admits that health problems are the main cause of ‘teacher absenteeism’. We cannot, in good conscience describe a sick teacher, in the middle of a global pandemic and in a region with severely restricted access to vaccines, - as having an ‘-ism’ of absence (absenteeism).

Judging teaching or its absence in the classroom

Teaching is a specialised profession requiring rigorous training at university or equivalent institutions. It is only highly experienced teachers and school leaders who can judge the absence or quality of teaching. As teachers know, teaching does not necessarily equate to talking, but also includes facilitating individualised or group student learning. Any observations that seek to determine the quality, presence, or absence of teaching in the classroom should be conducted by highly trained and experienced education professionals and school leaders.

Unfortunately, many studies on teacher absenteeism tend to rely on the judgment of untrained individuals, often volunteers from the community or inexperienced research assistants. Such methodologies often rely on unannounced classroom visits and observations which practically exclude teachers who may not be in the classroom when the surprise visit is made.

Professional autonomy paramount

Teachers, as specialised professionals, should be accorded the autonomy they need to carry out their mission effectively. Conceiving of the teaching profession and, therefore, treating teachers like production line workers undermines their professional autonomy, teacher agency and professionalism. Focusing primarily on time on task places the teacher in the position, not of a professional with decisions and initiatives to take, but a producer of limited measurable behaviours. Treating teachers as recipients and executants of detailed instructions, will not improve but undermine the quality of teaching and learning in Africa.

Address the root causes of absence

Instead of blaming teachers, it is vitally important that governments and partners work with them, through their unions, to address the root causes of the challenges affecting education systems in Africa and globally. The so-called learning crisis is actually an education financing crisis. Unless African governments take concrete and visible measures to invest in education and teachers, our children will not reach their full potential.

Instead of classifying sick teachers as ‘having absentee-ism’, we should support them with a safe and healthy environment. This implies investing in school infrastructure and hygienic facilities, as well as providing the necessary health services, including psychosocial support. This is even more important in the context of the pandemic. Teachers and education support personnel are frontline workers, they should be provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and prioritised in governments’ vaccination programmes.

Addressing poor salaries and working conditions can go a long way in ensuring that teachers focus on what they know how to do best, to teach. Poor remuneration, nonpayment or late payment of salaries is a big challenge in some of the countries covered in the Time to Teach study. Failure by governments to meet teachers’ basic needs, such as transport and decent accommodation, including institutional housing for rural teachers, detracts them from their core mission.

Teachers chose their profession because they want to teach, inspire, and motivate a new generation. Instead of focusing on narrow definitions of teacher ‘absenteeism' that don’t in anyway help African children to learn, develop and thrive, we should work together to strengthen the systems and programmes that support teachers to be where they want to be: with their students in a quality learning environment.

Editor's note: This article was first published on the NORRAG blog on 27 October 2021.

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For more information on why the learning poverty premise is defective, read Impoverishing the poor: the deficiencies of the World Bank’s learning poverty goal (Sinyolo, 2019).

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.