World Teachers’ Day: the important lesson of giving teachers respect

On this day of all days, Sunny Varkey argues that teachers must be encouraged, respected and receive proper investment across the world, to ensure that every child benefits from a decent education


It’s World Teachers’ Day today – and we have never needed them more.  In the developing world, the number of children not in school is actually rising again. Seventeen years ago, The UN’s millennium development goal of achieving universal primary education by 2000 was missed, and unless we dramatically change course we will be 50 years late meeting the sustainable development goal (SDG) commitment of inclusive, quality education for every child.

Many children who are in school are learning very little. Those in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, are leaving primary education without acquiring the most basic skills in reading and mathematics. Around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to one-quarter of the youth population – cannot read a sentence. In India, a major developing economy, three-quarters of 10-year-olds cannot calculate simple division sums. Too often, children are learning from poorly-trained teachers in shockingly under-resourced classrooms. This is not an environment that will cultivate the creativity and critical thinking skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.  

The costs for these children, their families and their societies of educational failure will only be compounded by the march of automation. A billion young people will join the global workforce over the next decade, and yet many existing jobs will be destroyed by technology. The impact of machines replacing humans in the workplace will cut far deeper into the developing world’s workforce than in the west, as there are more people in the kind of low-skill jobs that could be made obsolete. More worryingly, the higher-skilled jobs that could replace those that automation could destroy will never materialise unless we transform education.

Yet just at the moment when we need a well-educated workforce more than ever, the world is facing a dire teacher shortage. Unesco says we need 68.7 million extra primary and secondary school teachers by 2030, and the teacher shortfall is worst where they are most needed. In Africa, the only region where the school-age population is growing, 90% of countries have shortages at secondary level. Teacher numbers are falling annually in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia as they struggle with an average of more than 60 pupils per class.

Those teachers that are employed are often absent in the poorest parts of the world. This is not due to idleness: many work a second job because they cannot rely on their meagre teaching salary being paid on time. They are often also badly trained. In most countries, teachers are never tested again or given additional training once they have been recruited. The statistics on Uganda give a worrying snapshot: one-fifth of teachers fail the minimum standards in numeracy, literacy and pedagogy, half of teachers are absent from class daily, and 84% want to quit their jobs.

Today is a good day to reflect on the problems fuelling this crisis – including the precipitous status of teachers around the world. In much of the world, teachers are not well-respected, which means that many give up, and many bright potential teachers never contemplate a career in the classroom.    This is an international phenomenon. The Varkey Foundation commissioned a worldwide study, The Global Teacher Status Index, to compare teacher status around the world. It found that respect for teachers varied widely around the world, with only China conferring the same status on teachers as doctors. Tellingly, few parents across the world wanted their children to become teachers or believed that teachers enjoyed the respect of their pupils. Only a quarter of Britons said they would encourage their children to become teachers.

To remedy this, we need a dramatic cultural shift in the developed and developing world. We must find ways of celebrating the achievements of teachers – and bringing them into the public conversation. Together we need to get excited by the magic that can happen in the classroom: that moment when a teacher finds a way of explaining a difficult concept that finally breaks through. We could learn from China where, every year, pupils make cards and send bouquets to their teacher.     

But celebrations won’t be enough on their own. The world needs to invest in teachers – particularly in the poorest countries. Yet education aid is lower now than in 2009 and the funds aren’t going to where they are most needed. Sub-Saharan Africa, with half the world’s children who are not in school, receives half the aid it did in 2002. Global health, in contrast, receives substantially more funds than a decade ago.

To end this backsliding, the G7 largest economies should enshrine their commitment to education aid into law, just as the UK has committed to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid. At the same time, we need a laser-like focus on spending these precious funds wisely. That is why I am pleased that the largest ever gathering of former education ministers and policy experts will take place in the UK next month to focus on just these issues. The Atlantis Group will be debating how to improve leadership at all levels across the education system – in particular political leadership.

Creating a culture where millions of people want to become (and remain) teachers will take serious financial commitments on behalf of the world’s governments. Perhaps even more difficult will be shifting attitudes – returning the kind of respect for teachers I knew when I grew up as the child of two teachers in south India. The community would come to them for advice on all aspects of their lives. I saw first-hand how much the community valued them.  

World Teachers’ Day should be a moment for sober reflection. If we fail to nurture enough well-trained, respected and well-rewarded teachers we will, in turn, condemn millions more to a poor education. And it won’t be a tragedy for them alone. Allowing another generation to grow up frustrated and imprisoned by limited chances in life could lead to the kind of instability that will, in the end, touch all of our lives.