Africa's teachers skip school due to poor pay? Yes and no

An empty classroom in Ghana. Teaching is no longer seen as the 'respectable' career it once was in Africa. (Photo: Michael Pollack)

An empty classroom in Ghana. Teaching is no longer seen as the 'respectable' career it once was in Africa. (Photo: Michael Pollack)

A teachers’ strike has been called off in Kenya where teachers’ unions were demanding, among other things, a 300% pay rise.

Parties in the dispute — the teachers’ unions, the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, and the Teachers Service Commission — have been asked to submit proposals on the pay teachers are seeking before the Industrial Court.

As the strike unfolded over the past two weeks, it conformed to the general script that happens every time there is a teachers’ strike in Kenya. Those urging teachers to go back to class — government officials, parents, clergy and even MPs — almost invariably invoke the need to reach a deal “in the interests of Kenya’s children”.

Television broadcasts always show footage of pupils “forced to study on their own”; one newspaper quoted a secondary school student who has had to study in the public library, saying her dream of becoming a pilot “is at stake” because she was left to study without the help of teachers.

With the MDG-focus (Millennium Development Goals) on universal primary education driving the discourse on education in Africa over the past decade-and-a-half, the focus has tended to be exclusively on pupils.

Teachers don’t get much attention except when they go on strike — and even then, their actions are framed in the context of their pupils.

But teachers in Africa are some of the most unhappy and demotivated of all public servants, and money isn’t the only reason.

But let’s begin with the money. Teachers in most low-income countries earn poverty wages of $2-4 a day, says this study by the UK’s department for international development (DfID). Typically, teachers in Africa have at least five direct dependents.

Pay is so low that some teachers, like many of their students, do not eat properly before coming to school. Over a third of teacher respondents in the DfID study in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Zambia agreed with the statement that “teachers in this school come to work hungry”.

Historically, however, the best-paid teachers in Africa were not in countries with particularly high literacy rates. On the contrary, it has been in French-speaking Africa — Central African Republic (CAR), Burundi, Burkina Faso, Togo and Mali — which trail Africa in adult literacy rates, shows data from Unesco.

The reason is that unlike in former British colonies, where education was mainly delivered by British missionaries with the support of public subsidies, teachers in the French colonies were part of a homogeneous category of civil servants.

As a result, teachers’ salaries were indexed to those in metropolitan France until the time of independence; in the subsequent decades, an average teacher salary in French-speaking Africa was still practically twice as high (in relative terms) as that in English-speaking countries.

Gap closes 

Even in countries with a comparable level of economic development, salaries were around 60% higher in Francophone Africa than in Anglophone Africa.

But since the 1980s, structural adjustment programmes brought salaries in Francophone Africa more in line with that of their English-speaking colleagues; Unesco data on teachers’ salaries expressed in units of GDP per capita shows that between 1975 and 2004, the average relative salary for primary school teachers in Francophone Africa fell precipitously from 11.4 times GDP per capita to 4.0 times, while that in Anglophone Africa fell from 8.4 to 4.0 times.

Still, looking at the individual countries shows that the gap tends to persist in places.

To cope with higher demand for education with the increased enrolments over the past 15 years, African governments moved to fill the gap by increasing recruitment of contract teachers, as they come cheaper — contract teachers in Sahelian Africa are paid between 33% (Mali) and 200% (Niger) less than regular teachers, shows a separate study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

But the findings from Benin revealed how the policy had led to a more embittered teaching force.

Sense of betrayal

Hiring lesser-paid contract teachers was seen as undermining one of the basic elements of teacher identity in Benin: that of being a respected civil servant with a decent steady salary, job security and high social status. “Teachers felt betrayed by the state and as a consequence engaged in a host of negative behaviours, such as absenteeism and moonlighting,” says the ILO study.

Over a third of all the teachers at the survey primary schools in Ghana, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia indicated that teachers at their school are “poorly” or “very poorly” motivated. Motivation levels appear to be chronically low in Ghana and Zambia.

It is commonly argued that working in rural schools is considerably more difficult and thus more demotivating than in urban schools, because of poor living and working conditions. However, the findings from the country studies show that this is not necessarily the case.

Teachers who have grown up in rural areas frequently have strong social support networks in their community, and even if they are posted to another rural area, they are well adapted to village life.

City-born teachers are the unhappiest and most demotivated — they tend to come from better-off family backgrounds and often find it very difficult to adapt to living in a rural context.

Most university graduates in the first place are from urban backgrounds, and so too are most newly qualified teachers. They are therefore resistant to being posted to rural schools. In Tanzania, in 2003, nearly 2 000 out of 9 000 newly qualified teachers refused to be posted to their assigned schools.

New female teachers are the least likely to honour their deployment to far-off schools, the report says. In Zambia, there are twice as many female teachers in urban schools as there are male teachers. This ratio is reversed in rural schools.

It’s partly due to cultural and social factors that narrow the professional spaces that a single woman can occupy.

And sometimes it’s a strategic decision: because married female teachers are understood to be restricted by marriage, and so are “allowed” to live with their spouses, in Malawi, “female teachers who are posted to rural schools often refuse to take up their appointments … it is also well known that female teachers deliberately look for urban-based men as marriage partners, so as not to be posted to a rural school”, the report states.

But even staying in the city doesn’t make them feel any better. In Tanzania, age is a factor: for example, younger, better-qualified teachers are quite heavily concentrated in urban schools and are generally less satisfied with their jobs than the older generation of teachers, who still feel “privileged” to be a teacher.

Status drop

The general perception in all the countries surveyed is that the teaching profession no longer commands the high status it enjoyed 30 years ago and that teachers, especially primary school teachers, are now “undervalued by society”. The country studies confirm that teaching is very much regarded as “employment of last resort” by most school leavers and university graduates.

The official data shows that resignation rates are very low in all the 12 case study countries, between 0.5% and 9%. But it’s not necessarily a good thing: in the African economic context it is not the consequence of high levels of job satisfaction, but rather an acute shortage of alternative employment opportunities.

“Low attrition in the context of pervasive teacher demotivation only tends to make matters worse, because dissatisfied teachers are unable to leave,” the reports warns.

Christine Mungai

Christine Mungai

Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist, in Nairobi, Kenya. Her work has recently appeared in the Boston Globe, CNN Opinions and She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Read more from Christine Mungai