Teachers’ pay must be at the heart of global education reform

This piece was printed in the Guardian on 29th January 2014:

Progress in global education – especially in the poorest regions of the world – remains painfully slow. The latest Unesco Education for All global monitoring report, published Wednesday, underlines how far we still are from guaranteeing a good quality education for every child. While many pupils are now attending school, the quality of the education is often so poor that they are failing to learn the most elementary skills. Around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence.

The situation for girls is particularly dire. If current trends continue, it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate. In other words, it will only be the grandchildren of today’s pupils in sub-Saharan Africa that can expect to learn the skills that the developed world takes for granted.

Though the subject of improving education in the region could keep conference organisers in business for years, the overwhelming problem outlined in the report is simple: the availability of teachers and the quality of teaching.

Over the last few years, there has been much excitable talk about Africa being on the cusp of an economic renaissance. But this will amount to another lost opportunity if the number of teachers is not increased to cope with the continent’s exploding young population. Worldwide, 8.2 million new teachers need to be recruited by 2015 (pdf). If they are not, then Sub-Saharan Africa will be the worst affected region.

The quality of teachers is equally important. In a third of countries analysed by the report, less than three-quarters of primary school teachers are trained to national standards. In West Africa, where the teaching of basic skills is particularly poor, over half the teachers have little formal training and are on low-paid temporary contracts.

Poor pay results in many teachers earning supplementary income through second jobs, or running family businesses, when they should be in the classroom. This culture has been allowed to develop because there is little accountability: independent observers do not regularly inspect schools, and teachers do not have to prove their competence in the classroom after they have been hired.

There is, of course, no simple solution to this litany of problems. But the Education for All report is right that developing countries must attract the best candidates into teaching and incentivise them to stay. When governments have to choose whether to spend education budgets on new facilities or the salaries of teachers, there’s a good argument that spending on attracting teachers will yield the most tangible results. Peter Dolton from LSE has proven that there’s a clear link between the level of teachers pay and the quality of a country’s educational outcomes. Those countries that are in the upper-reaches of the Pisa rankings – South Korea, Finland, Singapore – all make an effort to recruit the best graduates and often demand that entrants to the profession have a second degree.

With many competing demands on fragile states – to build roads, provide healthcare and provide a welfare safety net – it’s unrealistic to expect that governments can provide the additional education provision required by Africa’s youth bulge alone. If managed well, partnerships with the private sector can bring in the investment to build schools quickly and import international expertise. For instance, entrepreneur James Tooley has pioneered school places in Ghana for 65 cents per day – including a school uniform, a hot lunch and work books – which is within reach of regular families.

Most importantly, we must raise the status of teaching. This isn’t just a problem in developing countries. In a survey in 21 different countries on which profession the public thought was comparable with teaching, it was only in China that people thought that the status of teachers was similar to that of doctors. Unsurprisingly, with such attitudes towards teachers, Shanghai topped the 2012 Pisa rankings. And it’s not just about teacher pay. We must culturally value teaching – seeing it not simply as a worthy vocation but as a job for the highly skilled that is essential to our future.

Without that, we will condemn more generations to leave school unable to read to the end of a sentence.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation