Time to Teach

Teacher attendance and time on task in Eastern and Southern Africa

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Time to Teach:

Teacher attendance and time on task in Eastern and Southern 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 sub-Saharan 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.

Time to Teach (TTT) covers Comoros, Kenya, Mozambique, Puntland (State of Somalia), Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania (mainland and Zanzibar) and Uganda. Its primary objective is to identify factors affecting various forms of teacher attendance, which include: 1) being at school, 2) being punctual, 3) being in the classroom, and 4) teaching when in the classroom and use this evidence to inform the design and implementation of teacher policies. The study draws from qualitative data collection, capturing the voices of teachers and other system-wide education stakeholders, from across the national, sub-national, community and school level; it also analyzes quantitative survey responses of teachers working in 180 purposively selected primary schools (20 schools per country/territory). 


The Time to Teach study continues to be conducted in other regions of Africa. The blue countries on this map represent the countries studied for the regional report in Eastern and Southern Africa.


Research objectives

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:

  1. How frequently are teachers absent?
  2. Which schools and teachers are more likely to experience absenteeism?
  3. Why are teachers absent?
  4. What are the promising practices and potential recommendations for policymaking?


Definition, data and methods

The study moves beyond the conventional definition of teacher attendance – that of being present at school – to include other, subtler forms of teacher attendance, like being punctual, being in the classroom (while in school), and teaching when in the classroom (see Box 1). While there are many valid reasons for a teacher to be absent, the 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 teachers’ absences.


Key Findings

How frequently are teachers absent? 

Confirming much of the existing literature, data drawn from the TTT survey – which was administered to 1,955 teachers working in 160 purposively selected schools across the ESA region – indicate that primary school educators are absent in various ways, albeit with varying degrees of frequency.

Across the region, 15.5 per cent of surveyed teachers reported being absent from school at least once a week. The highest national rates of school absenteeism 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).

Almost 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).


Which schools and teachers are more likely to experience absenteeism?

Analysis of the TTT survey data shows that differences in the frequency of self-reported absenteeism 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, absenteeism is higher 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 absenteeism compared with 17 per cent of public schools.

Gender: There is no statistically significant difference between male and female teacher self-reported absenteeism in the region as a whole.

Level of education: Absenteeism rates differ according to the highest level of education a teacher has received. Vocational school graduates reported the highest level of absenteeism (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 rate of absenteeism (12 per cent). 

Work status: In all countries, teacher absenteeism is higher 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 have a higher rate of absenteeism (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 absenteeism. Teachers who report being in the highest third of salaries within their country report lower rates of absenteeism (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 levels of absenteeism 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 (19 per cent).

Benefits: Receiving a cash benefit is associated with lower absenteeism 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?

Overall, in the eight countries, 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.


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

  • Health
  • Family obligations
  • Weather
  • Community infrastructure
  • Conflict


Country Reports


In Kenya, where primary education has made remarkable improvements in recent years, teacher absenteeism remains a foremost challenge for the education system.

The World Bank estimated the average rate of teacher absenteeism from schools across the country at 15 per cent and the average rate of teacher absenteeism from the classroom at 42 per cent. A 2016 a study conducted in 4,529 Kenyan primary schools found that on average, one in ten teachers was absent from school and that half of all schools had a teacher absenteeism rate in excess of 10 per cent. While the stark numbers are available, the evidence base on what factors, policies and practices affect teacher attendance in Kenya remains scant.

Download the Kenya report



While there is no data available from Puntland, State of Somalia, on teacher absenteeism trends, regional cases suggest this is a chronic problem facing many schools throughout Africa, with an average of 15 to 45 per cent of all primary school teachers absent from the classroom on any given day. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education is beginning to increasingly prioritize the role of the teacher in the provision of effective time on task, and thus, has taken measures to deter teacher absenteeism.

Download the Puntland report



Rwanda has made significant progress since the universalisation of primary education school in 2003. It currently boasts one of the highest primary student enrolment rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet teacher absenteeism continues to be one of the most serious challenges and hinders provision of quality education in Rwandan primary schools. Teachers absenteeism is the main reason why many pupils and students in Rwanda lack foundational literacy, numeracy, and the socio-emotional skills and therefore cannot reach their full potential. While there may be many valid reasons for a teacher to be absent from school and classroom, not all reasons are legitimate. Some teachers, for example, do not come to work because they pursue other occupations elsewhere.

Download the Rwanda report



In Uganda, primary education has achieved several milestones resulting in significant gains, including over 90 per cent literacy rate throughout the different districts, 94 per cent of the teaching force trained, and ongoing commitment from the Ministry of Education and Sports towards enhancing the provision of education. Uganda has also achieved gender parity in primary school enrolments, which in 2016 was at 84.1 per cent for girls and 83.3 per cent for boys.

There are, however, ongoing challenges that put pressures on current gains and future goals. UNICEF Uganda estimates at least 60 per cent of Uganda's teachers are not present in the classroom at half of all public schools. Regional observations indicate teacher absence is a much larger issue in Uganda than other neighbouring countries, and that their subject knowledge is lower, comparatively.

Download the Uganda report




This Time to Teach study collates and strengthens the evidence base on primary school teacher absenteeism in Mozambique. The study uses a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods to provide 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 and that what is needed is education system strengthening. It is hoped that findings will inform workable solutions and policies that will ensure a motivated teaching force, increase opportunities for children to learn at school and, ultimately, improve their life and work opportunities.

Download the Mozambique report


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.


Teacher monitoring

In most countries, there exists a framework for reporting, monitoring and sanctioning teacher absenteeism, especially absence from school, but its implementation is often problematic due to lack of capacity and resources. To encourage consistent enforcement of teacher monitoring and management mechanisms, it is important to:  

  • 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 absenteeism. Few countries have developed frameworks for systematically monitoring forms of absenteeism other than school absence.

Teacher training

  • 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.


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

  • Develop incentive strategies to make postings in rural and hardship areas more attractive.  
  • Strengthen the enforcement of teacher allocation rules.
  • Consider decentralizing teacher deployment and allocation.



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 absenteeism and increase 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 absenteeism and student learning outcomes.
  • Investing in more gendered analyses of absenteeism.
  • 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.



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