Time to Teach:
Teacher attendance and time on task in Africa
Quality education starts with teachers: they must be present and engaged for learning to take place. But according to recent evidence, in certain parts of Africa, teacher attendance rates remain alarmingly low. When students are without teachers – an essential prerequisite to learning – they are less likely to meet foundational numeracy and literacy goals. Available data from 21 African countries shows that, on average, 87 per cent of students are unable to read and understand a simple text by the end of primary school age. This alarming statistic is reflective of a complex set of contributing factors, but also highlights the need to address one of the most critical ones: teacher attendance.
Low teacher attendance and reduced time on task not only short-changes students, but it also wastes valuable financial resources and is one of the most cumbersome obstacles on the path toward the education Sustainable Development Goal and to the related vision of the UNICEF education strategy: Every Child Learns.
In response, UNICEF launched the Time to Teach (TTT) research project, with the primary objective to identify factors affecting various forms of teacher attendance, which include:
- Being at school
- Being punctual
- Being in the classroom
- Teaching when in the classroom and use this evidence to inform the design and implementation of teachers policies
There are many valid reasons for a teacher to be absent, however this study does not distinguish between authorized and unauthorized absences, as its goal is to capture the total loss of time on task (during the school year), irrespective of the validity of the reasons for teachers’ absences.
The key objectives of the study were to:
- Identify factors, both within and outside the education system, that affect primary school teacher attendance and time on task in the eight countries covered
- Examine variations and commonalities in the determinants of teacher attendance in different national settings as well as in different types of schools (e.g. public/private) and locations (e.g. rural/urban)
- Recognize promising policies and practices in improving teacher motivation, attendance and time on task, and encourage cross-country learning and policy transfer within the ESA region.
The report aims to answer the following questions:
- How frequently are teachers absent?
- Which schools and teachers are more likely to experience absences?
- Why are teachers absent?
- What are the promising practices and potential recommendations for policymaking?
Time to Teach Countries
The Time to Teach study gathers data from 21 countries and territories in sub-Saharan Africa. The study draws on quantitative survey responses from over 3000 teachers, as well as from qualitative data collection, capturing the voices of educators, head teachers, community representatives, national and local level officials, teacher union representatives, and students.
Time to Teach takes a systems approach towards explaining teacher attendance and therefore examines the relevance of factors at all levels of the education system, including the national, sub-national, community, school, and teacher levels. The study also evaluates whether factors outside of the education system may have an important role to play in determining teacher attendance. All of these factors are analyzed in-depth at the regional and country level (please see the key findings for each region below). Corresponding policy priorities and recommendations are made, depending on the context.
The Time to Teach Explanatory Model
Source: Adaptation of the work of Guerrero et al. (2013): Guerrero, G., Leon, J., Zapata, M., and Cueto, S. (2013). Getting teachers back to the classroom. A systematic review on what works to improve teacher attendance in developing countries. Journal of Development Effectiveness, 5 (4), 466-488.
Education system factors affecting teacher attendance
- Teacher monitoring
- Teacher training
- Teacher salaries, benefits and career development
- Teacher workload, recruitment and allocation
- School resources and infrastructure
Non-system factors affecting teacher attendance
- Family obligations
- Community infrastructure
Western and Central Africa Reports & Key Findings
The Time to Teach study in Western and Central Africa looked at primary school teacher attendance in eleven countries in West and Central Africa: Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, The Gambia, and Togo.The study draws from national, system-wide, qualitative data collections and school observations, and a quantitative survey of 1,673 teachers working in 234 purposively selected primary schools (20 schools per participating country, except for Nigeria where 36 schools where selected).
How frequently are teachers absent?
Time to Teach survey findings from Western and Central Africa confirm what is stated in existing literature, indicating that primary school educators are absent in various ways, albeit with varying degrees of frequency.
As much as 14.7 per cent of surveyed teachers reported being absent from school (including absence for unavoidable reasons such as being unwell and pre-service training) on a regular basis (i.e., at least once a week). Among participating countries, the highest rates of school absences were reported in Guinea (31.7 per cent) and Guinea Bissau (26 per cent) and the lowest in Togo (2.3 per cent) and Côte d’Ivoire (3.6 per cent).
Approximately 17 per cent of surveyed teachers reported arriving to school late or leaving school early at least once a week. The highest national rates of unpunctuality were reported in Guinea (32.2 per cent) and Gabon (26.8 per cent) and the lowest in Togo (4.5 per cent), The Gambia (10.5 per cent) and Côte d’Ivoire (10.7 per cent).
Across the region 14.5 per cent of surveyed teachers reported missing lessons while at school, at least once a week. Teachers in Guinea (23.9 per cent) and Guinea Bissau (22 per cent) reported the highest rates of classroom absences and teachers in Ghana (5.1 per cent), Togo (6.7 per cent) and Côte d’Ivoire (6.8 per cent) the lowest rates.
Reduced time on task while in the classroom was reported by 15.3 per cent of surveyed teachers as occurring at least once a week. At the country-level, the highest percentages of teachers spending less time teaching than originally planned were in Gabon (28.6 per cent), Guinea Bissau (23.3 per cent), and Mauritania (22.9 per cent) and the lowest in Togo (7.9 per cent), Ghana (9.2 per cent) and The Gambia (9.5 per cent).
Figure 2. Percentage of teachers who reported being absent frequently (i.e., at least once a week), by form of absence, country, and regional average
Which schools and teachers are more likely to experience absences in Western and Central Africa?
Analysis of the TTT survey data shows that differences in the frequency of self-reported absences exist within countries and across school type, and teacher characteristics such as age and work experience. The findings summarized below are those for which the differences are statistically significant.
School governance: Across West and Central Africa, teacher absences are more frequent in public than in private schools (16 percent vs. 13 percent). This is particularly true for unpunctuality; 18 per cent of teachers in public schools report arriving at school late or leaving early on a recurring basis compared to 12 per cent at private schools.
Age: Across the eleven participating countries in West and Central Africa, younger teachers (i.e., those whose age is below the median in their respective country) have more frequent school absences (16 per cent vs. 12 perc ent) and are more likely to be unpunctual (20 per cent vs. 14 per cent) and to reduce time on task (17 per cent vs. 14 per cent) on a recurring basis.
Work experience: In all participating West and Central Africa countries, teachers with less than six years of experience report higher rates of school (17 per cent vs. 12 per cent) and classroom absences (17 per cent vs. 11 per cent), and lack of punctuality (20 per cent vs. 15 per cent) compared to more experienced teachers. The only exception is Guinea, where more experienced teachers report higher rates of unpunctuality (46 per cent vs. 10 per cent).
Why are teachers absent in Western and Central Africa?
Ill health is the most frequent answer given for absence from the school, late arrival/early departure and reduced time on task, and the second most frequent answer given for absence from the classroom, after administrative tasks (e.g., office work, teachers’ meetings). Family reasons - in particular for school absences and late arrival/early departure – and weather were also frequently mentioned. Overall, reasons reported by teachers in the eleven countries are very similar to each other.
Figure 3. Primary reasons for absenteeism in the 11 countries, by form of absenteeism
Eastern and Southern Africa Reports & Key Findings
The Time to Teach study in Eastern and Southern Africa looked at primary school teacher attendance in nine countries and territories: the Comoros, Kenya, Mozambique, Puntland (State of Somalia), Rwanda (primary and secondary schools), South Sudan, Tanzania (mainland and Zanzibar) and Uganda. The study draws from national, system-wide, qualitative data collections and school observations, and a quantitative survey of 1,995 teachers working in 160 purposively selected primary schools (20 schools per country/territory).
How frequently are teachers absent?
The Time to Teach survey findings from Eastern and Southern Africa confirm what is stated in existing literature, indicating that primary school educators are absent in various ways, albeit with varying degrees of frequency.
Across the region, about 15 per cent of surveyed teachers reported being absent from school at least once a week. The highest national rates of school absenteeism in Eastern and Southern Africa were reported in South Sudan (30 per cent) and the Comoros (20.6 per cent) and the lowest in Kenya (8.9 per cent) and Rwanda (9 per cent).
About 17 per cent of surveyed teachers reported arriving to school late or leaving school early on a frequent basis (i.e. once a week or more). Among participating countries, the highest national rates of late arrival/ early departure were reported in Uganda (25.7 per cent), South Sudan (23.7 per cent) and the Comoros (22 per cent) and the lowest in Puntland (5.3 per cent), and Kenya (8.9 per cent).
As much as 15.7 per cent of surveyed teachers reported missing lessons while at school at least once a week. Teachers in South Sudan and in Zanzibar reported the highest rates of classroom absenteeism (26 and 22.7 per cent respectively) and teachers in Rwanda and Kenya the lowest rates (7.6 and 8.4 per cent respectively). Absence from teaching, defined as reduced time on task while in the classroom, was reported by 17.8 per cent of surveyed teachers as occurring at least once a week.
At the country level, the largest percentages of teachers reporting spending less time on teaching than originally planned at a rate of once a week or more were in South Sudan (31 per cent) and Zanzibar (20.7 per cent) and the smallest in Puntland (11 per cent), Rwanda (12 per cent) and Kenya (12.1 per cent).
Figure 1. Percentage of teachers who reported being absent frequently (i.e. at least once a week), by form of absence, country and average across the countries and territories
Which schools and teachers are more likely to experience absences in Eastern and Southern Africa?
Analysis of the TTT survey data shows that differences in the frequency of self-reported absences exist within countries and across school type and location, and teacher characteristics such as work status and level of education. The findings summarized below are those for which the differences are statistically significant.
School location: Across the region, absences are more frequent in rural areas (18 per cent) than in urban/ peri-urban areas (15 per cent).
School governance: Overall, approximately 13 per cent of private schools across the countries are affected by teacher absences compared with 17 per cent of public schools.
Gender: There is no statistically significant difference between male and female teacher self-reported absences in the region as a whole.
Level of education: Absences frequency differ according to the highest level of education a teacher has received. Vocational school graduates reported the highest frequency of absences (20 per cent) followed by secondary school graduates (17 per cent) and university graduates (14 per cent). Teachers who reported completing primary school as their highest level of education reported the lowest frequency of absences (12 per cent).
Work status: In all countries, teacher absences is more frequent among volunteer teachers (28 per cent) than non-volunteer (civil servant or contracted) teachers (16 per cent).
Earnings: Teachers who supplement their teaching income through non-teaching activities are more frequently absent (20 per cent) than those who receive income from teaching only (16 per cent). In all countries, being the sole earner in the household does not have a significant association with absences. Teachers who report being in the highest third of salaries within their country report lower frequency absences (15 per cent) than those who report being in the lowest third of salaries (18 per cent). Receiving salary payments on time is also strongly associated with lower frequency of absences across the region. Teachers who report receiving their salary in a timely manner are less absent (14 per cent) compared with those who report delays in receiving salary (19 per cent).
Benefits: Receiving a cash benefit is associated with lower frequency of absences across the countries than receiving no cash benefits (15 per cent vs 19 per cent). Teachers who receive a non-cash benefit are also less likely to report being absent than those who do not receive non-cash benefits (14 per cent vs 19 per cent).
Why are teachers absent in Eastern and Southern Africa?
Overall, in the nine countries and territories, ill health is the most frequent answer given for the absence from school, late arrival/early departure and reduced time on task forms, and the second most frequent answer given for absence from the classroom. Weather – in particular for late arrival/early departure – and family reasons were also very frequently mentioned.
Promising Practices & Recommendations
Insights from the field on promising practices – i.e. interventions by governments and development partners that may have the potential to bring about positive change and sustainably improve teacher attendance and time on task.
- Ensure that all head teachers in public and private schools have access to training courses and tools on school leadership and teacher management. This includes teacher monitoring and oversight, curriculum implementation and supervision, instructional leadership and resource mobilization.
- Increase the frequency of school inspections, especially in rural and remote areas.
- Boost parental and community involvement, especially at low-income and rural public schools, as a way of improving teacher accountability and attendance.
- Improve system coherence and ensure that all actors engaged in teacher monitoring are aware of their roles and core responsibilities and understand how these are shared between levels of authority.
- Explore the use of technology in ensuring high levels of teacher school attendance.
- Intensify efforts to address multiple forms of teacher absences. Few countries have developed frameworks for systematically monitoring forms of absences other than school absence.
- Reform the pre-service teacher training model and curriculum to ensure that it is in tandem with the school curriculum and children’s needs and that it contains a strong practical component that includes teaching practice in schools and extensive practice in competency-based learning.
- Provide continuous and high-quality in-service training and ensure that all teachers have an equal chance of being selected to attend professional development courses.
- Ensure that in-service training does not conflict with classroom hours, as it is difficult for teachers to make up for missed lessons and achieve effective curriculum implementation.
- Suptime on task by offering classroom-based in-service training: teachers can get support for supervisors or their colleagues during lessons. School-based training sessions that pull teachers from classrooms are another option, but substitute teachers are needed to cover classrooms, which is not always possible where there are teacher shortages.
Teacher remuneration and career progression
- Ensure the timely payment of salaries and remove obstacles to receiving pay.
- Consider boosting other important components of teacher motivation, such as by establishing a clear career progression path for the teaching profession.
- Ensure that salary reforms are well designed to avoid the risk of salary increases being inefficient or adversely affecting teacher motivation.
- Clearly define criteria for measuring teaching effectiveness when linking teacher performance to bonuses or higher salaries.
- Provide material rewards and incentives that do not encourage additional side work and do not distract teachers from their teaching duties.
Teacher workload, recruitment, and allocation
- Strengthen the enforcement of teacher allocation rules.
- Develop incentive strategies to make postings in rural and hardship areas more attractive.
- Provide incentives to increase the representation of female teachers, especially in rural areas.
- Consider decentralizing teacher deployment and allocation.
- Use data-driven allocation systems to inform planning and decision-making in education.
School resources and infrastructure
- Provide adequate teaching and learning materials, such as student textbooks accompanied with guidance materials for teachers.
- Develop an online platform to provide teaching and learning resources, which can be critical during times of school closures.
Potential solutions to external challenges
Collaboration between ministries of education, ministries of public works and transport, and local government is especially important, as poor infrastructure in the community limits teachers’ ability to carry out their duties. Special attention needs to be given to providing reliable transportation and functioning roads to improve teacher school attendance and discourage lateness. Ensuring decent housing conditions for teachers is also key for staffing schools in areas where housing options are limited or rental costs too high. Working in collaboration with parents and local communities on reinforcing school infrastructure (e.g. by replacing iron-sheet roofs) could help to reduce weather-induced classroom absences and increase time on task. Adapting school calendars to more localized climatic conditions is another solution to reduce weather-related absences and reduction of time on task.
Working in partnership with ministries of health is crucial for addressing inadequate health care and prevention programmes that affect teacher time on task. While malaria and HIV/AIDS are common causes of poor health among teachers in this study, their occurrence varies across districts and schools and therefore they require a needs-based approach. This involves working with development partners on establishing or scaling up school-based health programmes that are locally owned and incorporate some form of community involvement (to ensure sustainability). In areas affected by conflict, education and health ministries could work together to provide counselling services to teachers.
In countries facing security concerns, ministries of education could strengthen cooperation with police and security forces, civil society organizations, and local communities to increase the number of guards stationed at schools. Guards and escorts, who accompany teachers to and from school, have been used to encourage teacher school attendance in many conflict-affected settings with some success.
Ministries of education could also work with line ministries and development partners to improve school safety infrastructure, including by building boundary walls and installing safety and security equipment. However, it is important that efforts to strengthen school security do not ‘militarize’ schools or give them an intimidating appearance, as this could further reduce teacher attendance.
Recommendations for further research
Promising avenues for further research, which governments, development partners and researchers may consider, include the following:
- Strengthening the existing evidence base on the links between teacher allocation, their attendance, and student learning outcomes.
- Investing in more gendered analyses of absences.
- Expanding research on teacher attendance at faith-based schools, among special needs teachers and for teachers serving refugee and nomadic populations.
- Expanding research on teacher attendance and time on task to other education levels.
- Strengthening the emerging evidence when teachers adapted to school closures during COVID-19.