Absentee teachers are a thorn in our side

Teacher absenteeism is a problem, and seems to be the latest target for both President Jacob Zuma and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.

Let's be honest. It does make for an easy target. On any one day, between 10% and 12% of teachers are not in school, amounting to about 39 000 absent teachers every day. The majority of these leave instances (77%) are for one or two days (discretionary sick leave), which means that they do not require any medical certificate.

In a 2010 report commissioned by the United Nations Children's Fund, the Human Sciences Research Council found that only a quarter of all instances require documentation related to leave taking.

According to the report, the average teacher is away from school or the classroom for between 20 and 24 days a year. This figure was based on an analysis of the Khulisa Consortium Audit of Ordinary and Independent Schools conducted in 2008, a 2005 study by the research council and an analysis of the department's administrative records on teachers.

The study also shows that teacher absenteeism varies widely by school quintile, with teacher absenteeism in the poorest 60% of schools being twice as high as in the wealthiest 20% of schools in some provinces.

Given that the main reason provided for teacher leave is sickness, it is truly surprising that sickness seems to strike teachers particularly on Mondays and Fridays, as the data reveals. The research council analysis showed that teachers were almost twice as likely to fall sick on a Monday or a Friday than they were on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Clearly we are dealing with a very particular, calendar sensitive strain of the flu.

Official business
However, not all leave instances are owed to sickness; about 30% of the leave instances reported were for official business such as cluster meetings, curriculum workshops, moderating grade 12 marks and excursions.

These meetings are supposed to be scheduled outside of school times, but this is frequently not the case. Many principals and teachers are unaware that teachers are required to undergo 80 hours of ongoing professional development every year, in addition to their normal teaching load. These 80 hours are included in the 1 800 working hours that make up the total number for which teachers are paid. As a result, many teachers are often reluctant to attend training during school holidays, resulting in training being scheduled during school time.

Union meetings during school time were also identified as a problem. Sometimes the meetings were scheduled just outside of school times, but teachers who stayed far away from the venue would leave school early, sometimes as early as 8am, to ensure they were on time.

When absenteeism is so prevalent, it's pertinent to ask what principals do when teachers are absent. The 2007 study by the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality showed that, in the Eastern Cape, half of the principals surveyed reported that they "sometimes" leave pupils on their own when the teacher is absent and 40% reported that they "sometimes" send students home when the teacher is absent.

In addition to outright teacher absenteeism, a more nefarious problem is when teachers are in school but simply not teaching or teaching too slowly. The 2009 National School Effectiveness Study showed that 88% of grade five maths teachers in South Africa covered less than 40% of the curriculum. In other words, in the vast majority of grade five classes there were no examples of any work done on 60% of the maths curriculum as teachers only covered 35 of the 89 topics by the end of the year.

Clamp down
The 2011 Carnoy Chisholm study showed that teachers in the North West taught only 52 of the 140 daily lessons scheduled for the year (40%) compared with 78 in Botswana (60%). Given that unwarranted teacher absenteeism in South Africa is unacceptably high (particularly in certain parts of the school system) the department should be encouraged to clamp down on negligence.

However, one must remember that teaching time and curriculum coverage are the real end goals here. Because inadequate curriculum coverage and low teaching time are most problematic in the poorest 60% of schools, district officials and subject advisers should use workbooks as an indication of curriculum coverage and randomly sample three workbooks per subject per grade per term.

Teachers must be taught that the workbooks structure the curriculum per week of teaching time, allowing them to ensure that the full curriculum is covered.

Teachers are fundamental to the quality of schooling in South Africa. If they are frequently absent we shouldn't be surprised when curriculum coverage is so low. The president and the minister are right for highlighting this sorry state of affairs.

It's important to remember that getting teachers in school is an important first step, but the real issue is teaching time, curriculum coverage and learning. Unless we start actively monitoring and reporting on those outcomes, the latest gadget to track teacher absenteeism will have limited impact on the quality of education in South Africa.

Nic Spaull is a researcher in Stellenbosch University's economics department. He can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull and his research can be found at: nicspaull.com/research

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