Absence makes the heart…

Left alone to learn?

Left alone to learn?

I remember in 2007 visiting a primary school with a colleague in Kerala. Many of the familiar characteristics that I would have associated with any school in England, or for that matter in many of the other countries I have visited over the years, were evident as I explored the corridors and classrooms. The smiling inquisitive faces of children eager to scrutinise the stranger entering their classroom, and the whispering behind hands as they discussed who I might be and why I was there, was a scene I had witnessed many times before. The visit, as with most of this kind, afforded opportunities for me to seek out the familiarities of classrooms everywhere, and the unique features associated with culture and tradition that I would not expect to see at home.

A couple of times during the visit I came to classrooms that were either empty or had just a few pupils in attendance, sitting chatting to each other or working quietly on an exercise from a book. Where, I enquired of my colleague, were the teachers from these classes? Today they didn’t come, I was informed. Were they ill? I wondered. Or perhaps they had child care problems? No, I was informed. Today they simply hadn’t come.

For those of us working in education systems in western countries, such an attitude to absenteeism would be unthinkable, but the latest UNESCO Education For All Report highlights teacher absence as a major limiting factor in the education of children in many countries, including India. With specific reference to the country the report’s authors state that:-

“Across India, absenteeism varied from 15% in Maharashtra and 17% in Gujarat – two richer states – to 38% in Bihar and 42% in Jharkhand, two of the poorest states.”

The impact of absence in schools has been a source of concern for some time and has been the focus of a number of research studies in India (*see references below). The frustrations for policy makers who are intent on improving education is self-evident, and as the report highlights, at a time when efforts to encourage children and their parents to improve school attendance seems to be making positive strides, this is one factor that may hinder progress.

“While many more children are getting to school worldwide, teacher absenteeism sometimes significantly reduces the amount of teaching they receive, undermining their learning. Efforts to reduce absenteeism need to target the reasons teachers fail to turn up to school, which can include low pay and poor teaching conditions”.

Whilst we may be quick to condemn teachers for their lack of professionalism and dereliction of duties, we need to examine the reasons why this state of affairs exists. In this respect the UNESCO report takes a reasoned view and recognises that until the conditions for teachers are improved, those who are expected to work in the poorest communities and often with families where there is no history of school completion, are going to have difficulties making a full professional commitment. In my own limited experience of India I have met teachers from some of the poorer government schools who cannot afford to feed and clothe their families on a basic teachers’ salary and therefore take additional employment in order to survive. As the report recognises:-

In some poor countries pay levels do not even cover basic living costs. When salaries are too low, teachers often need to take on additional work – sometimes including private tuition – which can reduce their commitment to their regular teaching jobs and lead to absenteeism”.

The solution to this problem does not lie in the implementation of more punitive measures against teachers, though the report does state that:-

“In India, only one head teacher in 3,000 government schools reported dismissing a teacher for repeated absence. By contrast, 35 private school head teachers, out of 600 surveyed, reported having dismissed teachers for this reason”.

The dismissal of teachers is unlikely to have the desired impact unless others are available to take their place, and it is evident that the supply of teachers to the poorer schools in India is far from guaranteed. The answer must lie in improving the conditions of teachers, raising their status by providing them with recognition for the challenging work they undertake, and giving them the professional development that they need in order to take greater pride in their work. Above all, teachers working in the poorest areas need to be recognised and appreciated for the transformative impact they can have on the lives not only of their pupils, but on whole communities. Whilst every teacher has a personal responsibility to uphold the finest ethics of their profession, politicians and administrators must bear some responsibility for supporting them in their work. As the report recognises:-

“Governments can also do more to address teacher absenteeism by improving teachers’ working conditions, making sure they are not overburdened with non-teaching duties and offering them access to good health care. Strong school leadership is required to ensure that teachers show up on time, work a full week and provide equal support to all. School leaders also need training in offering professional support to teachers”.

I was greatly moved by the empathy for teachers shown by a student who is quoted in the report. She says:-

“I do not get angry with the teachers when they don’t come to school as I understand that they may have some problems themselves”.

B. Shravani, student, Andhra Pradesh, India

This student is pragmatic where we might be condemnatory. We should never condone the unathorised absence of teachers, but neither should we tolerate the low regard in which so many of them are held.

Following my visit to the school in 2007 I strolled along the beach less than half a mile from the classrooms I had visited on an hour earlier. Here I watched a typical gathering of Indian boys playing cricket on their sandy pitch. Being incompetent in the local Malayalam language I asked my colleague to find out from the boys why they weren’t in school. The answer was predictable: “No school today, teacher didn’t come.”

*Duflo, E, & Hanna, R. (2005) Monitoring works: getting teachers to come to school. Working Paper 11880. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau Of Economic Research

*Kremer, M., Chaudhury, N., Rogers, F. H., Muralidharan, K. & Hammer, J. (2005), Teacher absence in India: a snapshot. Journal of the European Economic Association, 3 (2-3) 658–667.

You can download a full copy of the report from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013