The standard answer to all of India’s problems has been its youth. For decades have the citizens spoken of a golden generation of the youth that would push the economy and the country from the developing to the developed. Education is also seen as a way to reduce the inter-generational transmission of poverty. A major move to help them in this regard was done with the very forward legislation of Right to Education Act in 2006. Strengthened by initiatives such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which hark  for achieving universal primary education by 2015, other programmes like Distant Primary Education Programme and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan were also implemented to increase the number of students enrolling in schools. These programmes would only be successful when it effectively reaches the intended beneficiaties and when it is of a good quality. But all of these have not helped with classroom activity due to a major issue of teacher absenteeism. This form of corruption in education has led to students having received a certification on paper but not having the expected numeracy or literary skill.

The most recent authoritative study on teacher absenteeism in the country is the World Bank National Absence Survey (WBNAS). Many unannounced  multiple visits were made to 3700 government primary schools across 20 States within India. 35,000 observations on teacher attendance were collected. Overall, 25.2 per cent or roughly one in four teachers were found to be absent in rural areas. Official non-academic duties accounted for only four per cent of the total absences and ten per cent of absences were on account of officially sanctioned leaves.

According to UNESCO’s International Institute of Educational Planning study on corruption in education, India’s rate of teacher absenteeism is 25% while the global average is 20%. A quarter of all the students show up to school most days without a teacher. Teacher absenteeism affects not only the quantity of time the students spend in the classrooms and the effectiveness of such errant teaching but also forces the schools to make unnecessary expenditure such as making arrangement for substitute teacher and other miscellaneous inconveniences caused due to it. The students further suffer because the teachers who are present and working would have to focus their energy on teaching double or triple the number of students they are supposed to teach. Hereby, absenteeism affects the quality of lessons too. There is also a great impact on the resources that are spent by the schools due to these above mentioned reasons. The drain on such resources could add to as much as 22.5% of all education funds in India, says the UNESCO report.

Teacher absenteeism accounts for the loss of up to one-quarter of primary school spending.  This amounts to $16 million annually in Ecuador and $2 billion a year in India.  Also, the decrease in teaching time negatively influences the overall quality of education, induces pupil absenteeism and destroys the reputation of the schools.  This depletion of resources hurts those students from disadvantaged backgrounds for whom school is the only avenue for economic and social advancement.

Reasons provided for absenteeism fall into the following key categories: official teaching and nonteaching duties, excused absence, authorized leave, sickness of self or other, unexcused absences, and tardiness. A major reason given for a category such as authorized leave is that the teachers are helping officials with such as election campaigning. And there are many with unexcused absences because the precedence of any headmaster or school official terminating the position of a teacher due to an illegitimate leave of absence is nearly nil.  The study by Chaudhary et al. also showed that absenteeism was not done by a specific kind of teachers over 6 countries. This leads us to see that the reasons for absence are also likely to be systemic in nature – such as system‐wide failures in accountability, low levels of wages, poor transportation for teachers, or simply low expectations of teacher performance.

A major reason behind teacher absenteeism is that due to low wages paid to the teachers. Low salary is also exacerbated with delays on part of the government to make the payment. Hence, they ‘moonlight’ or take up extra lessons with students for exorbitant fees. It has gradually become a status symbol with parents striving to send their kids to a private tutor. Due to this parallel income with more accountability than in a school, teachers tend to not be present during school hours or not take classes even when present. Hence, the idea of getting students in rural areas to enrol themselves in schools is defeated as there are no active classes taking places. Even when private donors and the government invest in school infrastructure or mid-day meal schemes, the purpose of education for these children are not due to the absence of teachers.

The lack of accountability is also a major reason behind this malaise. When working in government schools might not be lucrative enough and the chance of getting caught by school authorities for being absent is relatively low, teachers are convinced to just not teach or use the time to make some income of their own by taking private tuitions. Disciplinary actions are rarely undertaken against absent teachers: in a survey of 3,000 Indian government schools, only one principal reported a teacher having been fired for poor attendance .A study was conducted in Udaipur, Rajasthan by which cameras were places in a few treatment schools to check into the problem of absent teachers and the salary of the teachers was decided based on the classes missed. They looked at issues of whether when incentivized, if the teachers turn up and if they do, do they teach at all and also into whether simple financial incentives undermine or encourage their motivation to be present. The program resulted in an immediate and long lasting improvement in teacher attendance rates in treatment schools. Over the 30 months of the study, teachers at program schools had an absence rate of 21 percent, compared to 44 percent at baseline and 42 percent in the comparison schools. Children in treatment schools got an average 30 per cent more instruction time than children in comparison schools. Even four years after the start of the program, teacher attendance remained significantly higher in treatment schools (72 percent attendance) than in comparison schools (61 percent), suggesting that teachers did not change their behavior simply for the evaluation – their response was almost entirely due to the financial incentives.

The UNESCO report and other studies also point to the fact that it is not only monetary incentives that can be used as a strategy to reduce the absenteeism but also by making the school environment better- by providing them with amenities such as proper safe buildings, toilets, meals, etc. In some schools in the US , positive elements like letters of appreciation were used with less absence instead of meting out punishment for the contrary. This was shown to have in turn reduced the frequency of absence.

Many methods have been proposed to comprehensively tackle this menace. The most prominent one has been a civil service reform where the accountability of teachers is increased. This also calls for complete transparency with regard to appointment, assessment and promotion of teachers. This would also help with the other issue of ‘ghost teachers’. At the national level, a strong political leadership and thereby good policy reform can improve financial management of public expenditure on education. Awareness must also be spread about the problems that are caused by constant absenteeism and a more stringent check must be kept on the attendance of teachers. While a holistic betterment of this currently bad scenario is only that can only be improved gradually with simultaneous application of the above proposed ingredients, it is a cause of great urgency.

About the Author

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Ninni Susan Thomas

A law student at National Law University, Jodhpur pursuing a double honours degree in Criminal Law and Policy Sciences. Her interests lie in Criminal Law, Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law, and Policy Studies. When not trying to get through law school, she enjoys reading, music and copious amounts of good food.