The Teacher’s Waking Nightmare

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

You did well at school and at college. You studied hard and made great sacrifices to qualify as a teacher – determined to help the next generation reach their full potential. But now you’re standing in a poorly-equipped classroom in front of 50 children aged from 6 to 11 years old. You have a few textbooks that are falling apart, only a handful of pens and pencils, a few scraps of paper, and no chalk for the chalkboard painted on the crumbling wall behind you. And your pupils are looking at you expectantly, ready for you to teach them everything that they need to know.

This is not some nightmare that ends when you wake up. It’s a daily reality for many of the world’s teachers.

On World Teachers Day, we celebrate the critical role teachers play in providing quality education at all levels. It is thanks to teachers that children and adults of all ages learn to take part in and contribute to their local community and global society.

A global learning crisis

But recent data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) confirm that the teacher’s nightmare is only too real and that they all too often lack the support they need to deliver a quality education for all. Of the 617 million children and adolescents worldwide who are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, two-thirds are actually in the classroom. Their teachers now find themselves on the frontline of a global learning crisis. And nowhere is this crisis more vivid than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the single largest number – 202 million – of children and adolescents who are not learning. Across the region, nearly nine out of ten kids between the ages of about 6 and 14 will not meet minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Across the region, girls of primary school age face the greatest disadvantage. More than 70 million girls – or 90% – will not meet minimum proficiency levels in reading by the time they are old enough to complete primary education. This is the case for 86% of boys.

Anyone who is tempted to point the finger of blame at Africa’s teachers would be wise to look at the latest UIS eAtlas of Teachers, which paints a stark picture of the conditions and challenges they face.

More than 60 pupils per teacher in countries like Malawi

Teachers and students across the region are already struggling in overcrowded classrooms that often lack the most basic amenities. Our data show that the average pupil-teacher ratio for primary education is more than 60 pupils for every teacher in the Central African Republic (80), Malawi (70) and Chad (62). At the secondary level, a reasonable ratio of students to teacher is considered to be 25:1, but African countries that exceed this ratio include, once again, the Central African Republic (55), Ethiopia (44) and Congo (34). 

Alarm bells ringing for a growing school-age population

And it’s not just the ratios that put pressure on teachers: it’s the range of children they have to teach. Many are confronted with multi-grade classes, which present immense challenges to teachers, particularly when students have to share or even do without textbooks. 

Without urgent action, massive teacher shortages across sub-Saharan Africa will only get worse, given the rising demand for education from a growing school-age population. This pressure is leading many countries to resort to hiring teachers with little or no training, which can further undermine education quality. In countries such as Mali, less than one-half of new recruits are fully trained. It is not surprising that many teachers eventually walk away. In Angola, Togo, Ghana, Seychelles, Eritrea and Malawi, at least 10% of teachers leave the profession each year.

The alarm bells on learning achievement reinforce the argument for far greater investment in the world’s teachers, as a matter of extreme urgency. We desperately need more teachers in the classrooms, confident that they have the training and resources to do their job – jobs that are essential to the well-being of children, communities and nations.  

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