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World Teachers Day

The 50-year struggle to put teachers at the centre of quality education

On World Teachers Day, we all have a stake in standing with teachers to make education a true force for peace, discovery and fulfilment.

Comment | 05 October 2016
Today, schools, parents and students around the world are celebrating World Teachers Day. On this day, our message is clear. Nothing can substitute for a good teacher – no technology, tablet or edu-learning programme. We all recall the teachers who changed our lives, sparked vocations and opened our minds. Today, more than ever, the world needs more teachers, better trained teachers and better valued teachers.

Fifty years ago, 75 countries adopted an international standard on a profession facing multiple challenges, at a conference convened by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The 1966 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers sets out the rights and responsibilities of teachers, and calls for adequate training, salaries and support. It stresses the importance of involving teachers and their organizations in the setting of their working conditions and education policy in general.

The world – and education with it – has changed profoundly since 1966 – but the Recommendation’s messages have not aged.

Teachers are front line change makers, role models and the strongest influence on a student’s success, but they often face difficult working conditions. In many developing countries, salaries remain too low to attract or retain good teachers. Even in many developed countries, according to a recent study by the OECD, primary and lower secondary teachers earn 78 and 80 per cent less respectively than similarly-educated workers.

Wages and training are even worse among teachers hired on short-term contracts, a widespread practice in countries struggling to fill teacher shortages. These poor conditions contribute to the high attrition rates and absenteeism that have plagued many countries in their pursuit of developing a quality teaching force. And each year, the ILO deals with cases of teachers being dismissed, assaulted or imprisoned for participating in trade union activities.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN’s development blueprint for the next 15 years, recognizes the importance of teachers. Countries have committed to universalize primary and secondary education by 2030, because education is a human right essential to dignity and empowerment. It is a force for gender equality, poverty eradication, sustainability. It is the smartest investment a nation can make for peace, for prosperity.

This means investing in teachers.

Between 2015 and 2030, demand for teachers in low- and lower-middle income countries is projected to rise by 60 percent, from 22 million to 37 million. We estimate that close to 69 million teachers need to be recruited to universalize education. This is more than good reason for making the profession attractive.

UNESCO’s 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report shows that in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of pre-primary and a quarter of secondary school teachers are untrained. We need to improve teacher training and qualification requirements to match demands, and to support teachers working in the most marginalized communities, in situations of crisis and conflict.

We need new will and resource to tackle this demand -- to recruit, retain and motivate one of the world’s finest professions.

Financing challenges have to be tackled through fairer tax regimes, alternative revenue schemes, and well-governed public-private partnerships. These solutions, whether public, private or a mix of both, need to be dependable and sustainable, and ensure equity for all learners.

Teachers must be paid adequately in relation to other professions with similar requirements to draw young talents. They must be held accountable for their performance, while resisting over-simplified accountability schemes.

And above all, and here the 1966 Recommendation is very clear, teachers need to be involved at all levels of policy- and decision-making that affect them. Policymakers must resist misguided notions that teacher unions are an obstacle to education reform, and fight efforts to curtail the fundamental right of teachers to join associations in their professional interest. Experience shows that good faith social dialogue – institutionalized and regular consultation, sharing of information, and where appropriate, negotiation – between teachers and their employers can be solid way forward to sustainable education reform and effective teachers.

Day after day, teachers are on the frontline, nurturing young minds, charting new ways of living together in increasingly diverse societies. On World Teachers Day, we all have a stake in standing with teachers to make education a true force for peace, discovery and fulfilment.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder