The 50-year Struggle To Put Teachers At The Center Of Quality Education

Today, schools, parents and kids in numerous countries around the world are celebrating World Teachers Day. The celebration marks the day fifty years ago when, at a special conference in Paris convened by two United Nations agencies, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), delegates from 75 countries adopted an international standard on a profession facing many challenges. The ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers (1966) sets out the rights and responsibilities of teachers, and calls for adequate training, salaries and support. It further stresses the importance of involving teachers and their organizations in the setting of their working conditions and education policy in general.

The adoption of the Recommendation was an important step in addressing the teacher paradox: while good teachers have always been recognized as critical for national development, they often faced working conditions that made their profession difficult and unattractive to qualified people. This paradox continues today. Research has indicated that the impact of a good teacher on a learner greatly outweighs other factors such as school infrastructure and textbooks, yet in many developing countries teacher 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 respectively of similarly-educated workers.

Teachers also often do not receive adequate training. The recently published 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. Wages and training are even worse among teachers hired on short-term contracts, a widespread practice in countries scrambling 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.

Fifty years after its adoption, therefore, we believe that the Recommendation on the Status of Teachers remains highly relevant, and the world community must continue to ensure that its promises are fulfilled. There are signs of hope. In a number of countries, teachers enjoy the respect and working conditions commensurate with their responsibilities. Almost all countries have recognized the importance of teachers and in setting out relevant policies and management mechanisms. And it has been a remarkable achievement for teacher organizations to have the importance of their profession recognized in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the UN's development blueprint.

Yet the Recommendation still challenges us to do much more. In view of declining public budgets, we need to tackle the challenge of education financing through fairer tax regimes, alternative revenue schemes, and well-governed public-private partnerships. Financing solutions, whether public, private or a mix of both, need to be dependable and sustainable, and ensure equity for all learners. We need to improve teacher training and qualification requirements to match the demands of the profession. Teachers need to be paid adequately in relation to other professions with similar requirements to ensure that good and motivated young people are attracted to teaching. Teachers must be held accountable for their performance, yet we need to resist over-simplified accountability schemes that reduce the complex interaction of teaching to convenient numbers.

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. Policy makers 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 has shown 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. Teachers are the key to a sustainable future, and on this World Teachers Day, we would do well to reflect on how to empower this noble profession.

Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization (ILO) and Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO