How well paid teacher workforce is the most valuable resource in Africa

This piece was printed in the Times Educational Supplement on 29th January 2014:

After decades of depressing news, the last few years have seen an outbreak of giddy optimism about the prospects for Africa. The continent’s economy has begun to shift from mining and agriculture to tourism, telecoms and banking. Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies over the last ten years have been in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s no surprise, then, that The Economist has christened Africa “the hopeful continent”.

But such hopes could be dashed unless education improves. Unesco’s Education for All global monitoring report, published today, paints a damning picture of basic skills in the poorest parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. Though school attendance has increased, 175 million children remain illiterate. As ever, girls fare the worst. The report predicts that it will take until the next century for every girl from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa to finish secondary school.

The reasons for Africa’s poor educational performance could easily fill a thick exercise book – from large classes and poor funding to insufficient textbooks and rickety schools. But the malaise has one overwhelming cause: the lack of respect and decent salaries for teachers. This discourages many with the talent to teach from entering the classroom.

It is a particular disaster because 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population under the age of 30. Africa’s much-trumpeted renaissance will be stymied if education capacity does not keep pace with the youth bulge, as Asia has successfully managed to do over the last thirty years. The continent’s business leaders frequently argue that finding employees with the right skills is the biggest to challenge they face. And the scale of the task is urgent – according to the Unesco report, 8.2 million new primary school teachers need to be recruited by 2015.

However many teachers are hired by education ministries, it is the quality of their teaching that will help determine whether sub-Saharan Africa will continue to grow. According to the report, west African education is dogged in particular by the fact that less than half of teachers have been formally trained and work under poorly paid temporary contracts.

Teacher absenteeism is also a major issue: in a school I visited in the region, just two of the twenty teachers that were supposed to be there were present. This is not due to idleness. Teacher salaries are often so meagre that teachers have to work a second job to support their family – at the expense of those in the classroom.

Such behaviour takes hold because of a lack of accountability. All too often, once a teacher has been hired, they have a job for life; there is no requirement to demonstrate their skills over time. And there is no equivalent of the Ofsted visit where independent observers can validate the quality of teaching.

This is not to criticise the teachers who are often working heroically in the most arduous circumstances. However, the Education for All report is right that the priority for developing countries is to employ the best teachers, pay them competitive salaries, encourage them to stay in the profession and ensure that they improve their skills throughout their careers.

Governments in developing countries have painful choices to make about spending priorities. But, as Peter Dolton from the London School of Economics has demonstrated, there is a clear link between the level of teacher reward and a country’s educational performance. The star performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings – from Finland to South Korea to Singapore – all prioritise attracting the brightest, best-qualified graduates into the profession through offering excellent pay and conditions.

Practical measures to improve the skills of those teachers already in the classroom are essential. The Varkey GEMS Foundation last year began running a two-week course to improve pedagogic techniques. The programme trains teachers to encourage their students to apply their knowledge rather than simply recalling rote-learned facts. Those teachers that benefited from this programme will, in turn, train their colleagues back in their schools, eventually improving the skills 250,000 teachers around the world.

We should beware too, of techno-utopians who predict that they can transform African education. Though the iPad and the laptop can be valuable teaching tools, internet connectivity in the more remote parts of the continent should not be overestimated. In most schools, using the latest technologies simply isn’t the most pressing concern. The budgets devoted to technological fixes would be better spent, for the moment, ensuring that pupils have access to books, paper and pens.

The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) noted in 2010 that “the demand for education services [in Africa] is rising at a faster rate than governments can supply”. With the endless competing demands on meagre resources of these poorer states, the resources of the private sector must be leveraged to build and operate schools on the scale required. Over forty per cent of pupils are already enrolled in low-cost private schools in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

When the Varkey GEMS Foundation published the Global Teacher Status Index last year, we found that, out of twenty-one countries polled, only one country – China – thought teachers enjoyed the same high status as doctors. It is no coincidence that Shanghai now leads the Pisa rankings.

Respect for teachers is essential for African development. The euphoria that has greeted the glad economic tidings from Africa is entirely justified after decades of poverty and conflict. But, as the Unesco report reminds us, without well-trained, well-paid and well-respected teachers, hope for the next generation of young Africans may prove short-lived.


Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation