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New study unveils challenges affecting teacher attendance in sub-Saharan Africa

Evidence to help education systems better support teacher motivation, accountability and conditions
22 Nov 2020


(4 November 2020) Important new research on teacher absenteeism in sub-Saharan Africa was launched today at a regional online workshop of national and international education stakeholders organized in Nairobi, Kenya. Time to Teach: Teacher attendance and time on task in Eastern and Southern Africa, provides insights into the drivers of primary school teacher absenteeism, a major obstacle in efforts to address the learning crisis in children of low- and middle-income countries around the world.

Produced by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, the report synthesizes findings from eight sub-Saharan countries with a focus on the many complex factors that affect teacher time on task across the region. The study provides robust evidence on the challenges faced by teachers and to improve policies on teacher working conditions, accountability and motivation. Reduced teacher time on task is considered one of the greatest challenges toward inclusive and quality education.

Visit the Time to Teach microsite to download the report

“Even before COVID-19, the world was facing a learning crisis. Half of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries couldn’t read and understand a simple text and in sub-Saharan Africa the issue is even more acute with 87 per cent of children in that situation,” said Matt Brossard, Chief education researcher at UNICEF Innocenti. “This research identifies promising practices for supporting teachers and improving policies for a more motivated and effective teaching workforce, one of the most important factors for addressing the learning crisis.”

Countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have invested heavily in teacher development and support. Yet, teacher absenteeism is still prevalent in the region. Teachers attending lessons and spending time on task is a prerequisite for learning.

The study moves beyond the traditional understanding of teacher absenteeism and provides critical insights into the factors that underpin the multiple forms of teacher absenteeism and time on task. It also examines how factors vary across countries, school types, gender of teacher and other teacher characteristics. Despite high levels of teacher absenteeism, the study shows that teachers are generally committed to their job. What is crucially needed is strengthening education systems.

“Through the COVID-19 crisis, teachers’ roles have changed with many teachers supporting remote and home learning and all teachers closely involved in ensuring that schools are safe learning environments,” said Abhiyan J Rana, UNICEF Regional Education Adviser for Eastern and Southern Africa. “What is striking, however, is that the key insights from the study – namely that effective and consistently applied accountability, training and support, career development and renumeration systems – remain critical to improve teachers’ attendance and time on task.”

Key Findings of the Study

  • On average 15.5 to 17.8 per cent of teachers in the countries surveyed reported being absent from school or unable to deliver instruction while in school;
  • Teacher absenteeism is higher in rural areas than in urban/peri-urban areas and higher in public schools than in private schools;
  • ‘Moonlighting’ teachers, who hold multiple jobs, are more likely to report being absent compared with teachers who receive income exclusively from the teaching profession, as are volunteer teachers compared with non-volunteer teachers;
  • Across all countries, health, weather and family reasons were the most frequent reasons given by teachers for explaining the different forms of absence;
  • Teachers who perceive their head teacher as actively discouraging absenteeism report being more often at school and spending more time on task;
  • Stronger parental and community engagement in teacher monitoring is also associated with improved teacher attendance;
  • Teachers who receive their salary on time and with relative ease report lower rates of absenteeism than teachers who face delays and difficulties in collecting their pay.

The Time to Teach study covers Comoros, Kenya, Mozambique, Puntland (State of Somalia), Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania (mainland and Zanzibar) and Uganda. Findings are based on data from 180 public and private schools, 3,498 teachers and school administrators and 1,107 students. The research used a mixed methods approach, gathering quantitative and qualitative data from interviews, focus group discussions, a teacher survey and structured observations. A region-wide synthesis report has been produced along with nine country level reports.

“The overarching objective of the Time to Teach study is to enable governments to identify gaps and bottlenecks in improving teacher time on task,” said Despina Karamperidou, lead author of the report. “The persistent focus of the study on the multiple factors affecting teacher attendance, will help mobilize policymakers, citizens, donors and other stakeholders to take the necessary steps to improve teacher working conditions, accountability and motivation, and thereby improve learning outcomes.”

Main Policy Recommendations

  • Strengthen inter-sectoral collaboration to address factors beyond the education system, in particular health and infrastructure;
  • Ensure that head teachers are trained in management and leadership including monitoring and oversight, curriculum implementation and supervision;
  • Boost parental and community involvement to include a monitoring role and strengthening of their representation on school councils and management boards.
  • Remove obstacles to receiving pay including increased pay points in remote areas and establishing a Rota system to ensure schools continue to function at pay collection time.
  • Ensure that teacher training has a strong practical component and is not organized in a way that leave students without a teacher or a substitute teacher.
  • Make distribution of teachers across schools more equitable including incentive strategies to make postings in rural and hardship areas more attractive.

Findings will inform workable solutions and policies at the country level and will help increase opportunities for children to learn and, ultimately, improve their life and work opportunities.