Mireille de Koning - @mireilledko
16 October 2014

On 5th October, 1966, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNESCO adopted the Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers. While not legally binding, the Recommendation provides a basis for the development of national policies and practices concerning teachers. It specifically spells out the rights and responsibilities of teachers, as well as the international standards for their initial training and continued professional development, recruitment, employment, and the conditions in which teaching and learning should take place in their classrooms. It also promotes teachers’ involvement in the decision-making processes that concern education policy through consultation and negotiation with educational authorities.

However, relatively few countries can boast today that they meet the standards adopted 48 years ago. Teachers around the world continue to work under far from optimal conditions, with their rights ignored or denied, and in some cases, being deliberately excluded from decision-making processes. The potential for such teachers to fulfil their obligations within their profession is consistently thwarted. What’s more, the space for teacher involvement is diminishing, and teachers’ professionalism is in danger of losing its status.

These conditions affect students as much as they do teachers. Ensuring the right to quality education for all is impossible without the guarantee and protection of teachers’ rights - a fact recognised in international law. Article 13(2)(e) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that in order for the right to education to be fully realised “[…] the material conditions of teachers shall be continuously improved”. In its interpretation of Article 13, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) highlights the rights of teachers, particularly the right to work, as integral to the fulfilment of the right to education and warns that deteriorating working conditions constitute “a major obstacle to the full realisation of students’ right to education” (CESCR General Comment 13, Para 27).

The right to education necessitates the recruitment and retention of qualified and motivated teachers who are able to work in safe environments, have access to appropriate tools and resources, and enjoy adequate working conditions and remuneration. This means teachers should have access to quality materials; they should be able to exercise pedagogical leadership, and benefit from continuous professional development and training. Without these essentials, the ability to deliver quality education for all is next to impossible.

So we must ask ourselves: why have many countries around the world failed to implement comprehensive teacher-related policies as required within the 1966 Recommendation? One answer lies in the considerations outlined below, namely: underinvestment in teachers, education policies that undermine rather than strengthen teachers’ professionalism, and the failure to explicitly recognise the importance of teachers for the right to education in existing global development frameworks.

Investing in teachers

The theme of this year’s World Teachers’ Day (October 5th, the anniversary of the signing of the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation) was ‘invest in the future, invest in teachers’. This is telling. We are nearing the end of 2014, with under a year to go before the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals on education and the Education for All goals. Yet, the persistent and severe global shortage of teachers attests to the fact that investment in education is falling far short from global commitments made by governments and donors in 2000. According to a paper released jointly by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the Education for All Global Monitoring Report team, a total of 4 million teachers are needed to achieve universal primary education by 2015.

That governments have inadequately invested in teacher recruitment is also evidenced in Education International’s (EI) recently released documentary ‘Teachers: A day in the life'. The documentary captures a typical day in the life of several teachers around the world, revealing the similarities and differences between the contexts and conditions under which teaching and learning take place, and the adverse challenges that teachers and students face daily. In the documentary, Ms. Kpassagou Pulchérie teaches an overcrowded and under-resourced class of over 100 pupils in Togo: “During class not everyone gets a chance to participate because there are too many pupils. This isn’t good for the teacher or the students.”

Impoverished rural areas are most likely to suffer from teacher shortage, which shows that investment in education has not only fallen short, but it has also been inequitable, resulting in challenges in attracting and retaining teachers in those areas.

Policies for teachers but not by teachers

Over the last few decades, countries have increasingly chosen to adopt policies and implement reforms that have focused on demonstrating the performance of education systems. ‘Learning’ has become the new mantra in the global discourse on education, and teacher ‘quality’ is upheld as the determining factor for student outcomes and educational quality. As a result, reforms that propose new ways of evaluating and managing teachers - including high-stakes standardised testing and performance-based pay – have been popularised and implemented in many countries around the world.

What is controversial about these policies is that they attribute new and additional responsibilities to teachers, while simultaneously disempowering them, and fostering de-professionalisation, as revealed in a number of case studies on managerial and accountability reforms published by EI last year. Instead of taking teachers’ experiences, expertise and needs into account when developing policies, teachers’ voices are often ignored. Moreover, promoters of these policies tend to hold teachers responsible for the problems faced by education systems. Teacher and Vice-Principal Mr. Javier Iriarte, who teaches in a re-entry school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, argues against these policies: “The key to teaching is that it is not a closed system of thought; preconceived ideas about what you should and shouldn’t do. Teaching allows us to reflect on ideas and revisit what we do. If we think that teaching is like an instruction manual, then we are doomed to repetition. So there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all teacher; a teacher has to build a working environment which serves their community.”

Policies that target teachers also often ignore the context in which teaching and learning takes place, including the material conditions of schools as well as teachers’ preparedness. In the EI documentary, featured teacher Ms. Sharmishtha Sharma has been teaching as a contract teacher for the past seven years in a public primary school in New Delhi, India. Like many contract teachers in her country, she is employed for only 11 months of the year, and earns a fraction of the salary of a tenured teacher, despite having to shoulder the same responsibilities. She noted that female teachers are particularly vulnerable: “We are not given maternity leave. In case of pregnancy, our contracts would be terminated […] and we would be replaced by another teacher.”

Contractual labour policies were initially introduced in India as a short-term solution to meet the growing demand for education, but more recently this policy has been promoted as a cost-effective reform to ‘incentivise’ teacher performance. Ms. Sharma, who had no prior training when she began teaching, participates in in-service training hoping to obtain a permanent contract in the near-future: “The students will benefit from my training because I’ll be able to teach them properly.”

For many other contract teachers, however, the possibility of becoming fully qualified remains a dream. There is ample evidence showing that the employment of underqualified teachers, for very low pay with little to no professional support, has harmful effects on the overall quality of education. Currently, the number of un- and under- qualified teachers working in public school systems is extremely high; for example, in sub-Saharan Africa fewer than 50% of teachers are properly trained. This indicates that teachers cannot be held solely accountable for the outcomes of education systems, nor can their roles in education systems be evaluated as the sole determining factor of students’ classroom performance.

Global education frameworks do not (yet) include teachers

When agreed in 2000, neither the MDGs on education nor the EFA goals included explicit targets or indicators relating to teachers. A specific strategy on enhancing the status, morale and professionalism of teachers was included in the Dakar Framework for Action for achieving EFA, which called for ‘imaginative’ strategies to recruit, train and retain teachers, and stated: “no education reform is likely to succeed without the active participation and ownership of teachers. Teachers at all levels of the education system should be respected and adequately remunerated; have access to training and ongoing professional development and support […] and be able to participate, locally and nationally, in decisions affecting their professional lives and teaching environments.” This call for national strategies on teachers aligns itself with the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation, but few countries have achieved much progress in realising them.

There is, however, hope for the future. While it was not until 2013 that the main focus of the annual EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) was on teaching and learning, the report suggested that governments that genuinely want to improve their education systems must develop (and fund) comprehensive teacher policies (shaped in dialogue with teachers) that include strategies on education and training, ensuring the equal distribution of teachers, and investing in adequate salaries and decent working conditions. Moreover, the 2013/4 GMR provides a strong case for investing in teachers’ career progression rather than performance-related pay as motivational incentive for teachers. Simultaneously, the contexts in which teaching and learning take place must continually improve. Teachers (and students) should benefit from safe and supportive environments, with reasonable class sizes, education support personnel, the possibility of collaboration and exchange with colleagues, and professional autonomy. David de Coster, a public school teacher in Brussels, Belgium, featured in EI’s documentary, emphasises the importance of participation, trust and cooperation among teachers and students: “In a cooperative system in which we exchange, brew and mix, everyone can have a better life, the weak and strong alike.”

Meeting the 1966 Objectives

The 1966 UNESCO/ILO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers was written 48 years ago at a time when education systems and the global education landscape looked very different from how they look today. Yet, implementing the recommendation would still be a major feat in many countries today. In the current discussions on a new global development framework post-2015, it is the first time that a target on teachers has been proposed to complement a new global education goal on ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning. If adopted, this would be a very important step in the right direction of implementing and upholding the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation: acting on the knowledge that right to quality education for all cannot be separated from the recruitment and retention of qualified, professionally-trained, motivated and well-supported teachers.


Watch Education International's documentary 'Teachers: A Day in the Life':


Mireille de Koning works as a Research Coordinator at Education International (EI) Head office in Brussels, Belgium. EI is a global federation  of about 400 unions in more than 170 countries and territories, representing around 30 million teachers and other employees in education from early childhood to university.   

Contact Mireille at: mireille.dekoning@ei-ie.org







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