September 30, 2022
KATHMANDU – School teachers are among the most crucial professionals in any country, responsible for nurturing and educating the next generation. In Nepal, there are more than 325,000 teachers who teach in grades 1-12. This makes schoolteachers one of the largest streams of professionals in this country, much larger than, for example, the military. Like in many other low-income countries, the absence of teachers from school is of grave concern in Nepal. Common sense tells us that the presence of teachers in school is the first step toward effective teaching. Surprisingly, the government does not collect official statistics on teacher absence, making it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem and work towards practical solutions.
Teacher absenteeism is the failure of a teacher to report for or remain at work as scheduled, regardless of the reason. The reasons for teacher absenteeism can be clustered as authorised leaves (for example, medical and maternity leaves), absences due to official duties (for example, teacher training) and those working elsewhere when they should be teaching (for example, truancy, moonlighting, private tutoring). Global evidence shows that schools with larger shares of lower socioeconomic and minority students tend to have higher teacher absence rates and lower student test scores, making it even more important to tackle this issue to address long-standing inequities.
Many countries around the world collect data on teacher absenteeism. There is now a move towards more observational data collection techniques than simply using data from a head teacher’s register, which can be hopelessly inaccurate. The World Bank, for example, has developed Service Delivery Indicators (SDI) surveys to collect observational data on teacher presence in schools and classrooms. The use of this simple instrument provides useful data for decision-makers. Given its significance from an educational perspective, it is essential to collect teacher absence data, as there is robust evidence of a negative association between teacher absence and student learning outcomes.
One 2007 United States-based longitudinal study showed that every 10 days of teacher absence reduced students’ mathematics achievement by 3.3 percent of a standard deviation. Moreover, teacher absence data is essential because the education sector receives one of the largest national budget outlays, and a large share of that goes towards teachers’ wages and benefits. A large proportion of absent teachers means large sums of already allocated funds wasted.
In more advanced countries, teacher absences are addressed through a robust system of engaging substitute teachers. Such teacher management systems are weak or nonexistent in low-income countries like Nepal. Teacher absences are usually less than 5 percent in many advanced countries such as the United States and Finland. A study in Finland, for example, showed that only about 2-3 percent of all lower secondary school students had repeated absences; teacher absences were even lower or negligible. Teacher absence rates at the primary level are significantly higher in lower to middle-income countries, such as India (25 percent), Bangladesh (16 percent), Uganda (27 percent) and Kenya (28 percent).
While teachers’ presence in schools is essential, their presence in classrooms is what ultimately matters. Teacher absenteeism, therefore, is best studied at a more granular classroom level. When observational data is collected during unannounced visits, accurate estimates of teachers’ teaching can be ascertained. For example, SDI surveys in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa showed students receiving only 2 hours and 50 minutes on average of teaching per day, just over half the scheduled time.
Without data on such an essential variable of concern, the Nepal government cannot assess the magnitude of the problem and begin exploring solutions. Anecdotal evidence and small-scale studies suggest significant teacher absences in Nepali schools, ranging from 15 to 40 percent. According to one study, in some remote rural schools, the problem is more severe and borders on complete absenteeism or ghost teachers, as some teachers just come to record attendance once a month. For estimation purposes, the average of the above-noted range would place Nepal’s teacher absence at the primary level at over 27 percent. However, a more optimistic estimate might be 25 percent, similar to India’s absence rate. Bangladesh’s rate is lower due to its effective programmes, including the extensive community programmes of non-state actors such as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.
An estimate of 25 percent teacher absence for Nepal means that on any given day, an equivalent of over 80,000 teachers would be missing from our schools. That is a substantial educational and financial loss for the country. For those government colleagues exploring ways to save precious public resources, here is a place to focus and immediately start saving over $70 million per year. A starker way of looking at it would be to say we are throwing away over Rs25 million per day because of teacher absences. Or, with the figures noted above, we could construct the equivalent of a Bhairahawa international airport every one-two years.
A comprehensive and accurate loss figure will be difficult to calculate. If we add more granularity to the analysis by calculating teacher presence and performance in the classrooms and considering the massive learning losses and students’ subsequent life earnings because of teacher absences, the loss would be significantly higher than quoted above. We will save significant resources if we can better understand this problem and implement programmes to address them.
What we can do
The noted loss reflects a colossal governance failure on the part of the government. There is an urgent need to understand the reasons for teacher absenteeism better and investigate and address the multi-faceted challenges teachers face. Yet, no comprehensive studies have been conducted, reflecting an ostrich-like approach of pretending the problem does not exist. Where these issues have had to be discussed, the tendency has been to place a large share of the blame on the teachers themselves (as irresponsible professionals) or the teachers’ unions (for exaggerating teacher concerns).
A more mature and responsible approach would be to systematically investigate teacher issues and concerns, and review successful international experiences. Critical in this process will be to engage with and listen directly to the teachers. Various approaches have been tried to tackle this urgent problem, with mixed results. More successful programmes in a growing number of advanced countries seem to focus on system-wide reforms, paying closer attention to teacher concerns and incentives, and greater professionalisation of teaching as a profession. Nepal could learn from these successful policies and programmes. But first, it must acknowledge and assess the magnitude of the problem.