This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.
The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis in education cannot be overstated. The pandemic caused the biggest educational disruption in history, keeping 90% of the global student population out of school for weeks and months on end. As I write, 400 million students continue to be affected by school closures.
Since day one, teachers have been on the front line, providing quality emergency remote education to their students, in many instances against impossible odds and at great personal cost. As we work to get back on track and ensure all children are supported as they return to school buildings, we must remember that for students, having a qualified teacher makes all the difference. Having a quality education system makes all the difference. How we treat the education workforce going forward will determine the success or failure of recovery efforts in our sector. One thing is clear: we need to do much better.
Education International’s 2021 Global Report on the Status of Teachers paints a troubling picture. Based on data from education unions around the world, the report shows that teachers are overworked, underpaid and undervalued. Teachers are consistently paid less than peers with similar or equivalent qualifications. Workloads have steadily increased in recent years, with few continuous professional development programmes or other support measures in place. Permanent positions are being replaced with casual and temporary contracts, especially in higher education.
This overworked, undervalued and underpaid education workforce is predominantly female in most regions of the world. The gendered impact of the pandemic on our profession must not be overlooked: female teachers have felt enormous pressure trying to support the psychosocial and protection needs of students, while also delivering teaching. In addition, female teachers also shoulder the lion’s share of care work in their homes. Like all women, they were also exposed to increased risk of gender-based violence.
The COVID-19 crisis in education has also been exacerbated by governments’ stubbornly top-down approach. Many unions were not consulted about the response to the pandemic, leaving educators feeling unsupported, unsafe in their schools and disrespected. This has led to steep declines in well-being across the profession.
While the pandemic has led to increased public appreciation of the teaching profession, this has not led to critical structural improvements such as investment, support and better working conditions for educators. In fact, education budgets have fallen in 65% of low- and lower-middle-income countries, and in 33% of upper-middle- and high-income countries, since the start of the pandemic. These budget cuts could not come at a worse time. An effective response to the crisis requires additional spending to fund critical aspects of recovery, such as adequate sanitation and programmes to address gaps in learning, among others. Teachers are having to do much more with far fewer resources.
Even before the pandemic, the United Nations estimated that 69 million more teachers were needed worldwide to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education. The global teacher shortage is likely to increase dramatically because an exhausted workforce is being driven out of the profession.
Working with education unions and engaging in meaningful social and policy dialogue is a precondition to any solution to the challenges we are currently facing. For example, occupational health and safety in schools has emerged as a particularly challenging area. Throughout the pandemic, one main concern has been that decisions about health measures in schools are taken without consulting educators and their unions. This can too often result in health protocols that are impossible to implement in crowded schools, leaving educators exhausted, frustrated and exposed to a potentially deadly virus. In France, an unprecedented 75% of pre-school and primary school teachers went on strike in January to protest the chaotic management of the pandemic in their schools. Conversely, in South Africa, education unions have worked closely with the government, resulting in an agreement to prioritise educators for COVID-19 vaccines and to the joint development of the measures implemented in schools across the country. Unsurprisingly, the second approach yielded better results than the first.
Both Education International and the OECD know that when governments engage in continuous social and policy dialogue with educators and their unions, the trust engendered translates into positive outcomes for students and communities. This is why for the past 11 years EI and the OECD have co-hosted the International Summit on the Teaching Profession. The Summit brings together education union leaders and Ministers of Education to enhance social and policy dialogue and share good practice across borders. The next edition of the Summit, which will be hosted by the government of Spain in Valencia in May 2022, will be essential in helping unions and governments join forces to strengthen our education systems.
There is plenty of work to do. Investment in education staff and sustainable financing of the sector are imperative. Educators’ salaries must increase, working conditions must be decent, and workloads must be reduced. These are the crucial measures all governments must put in place without delay.
The pandemic has subjected education systems to unprecedented pressure with disastrous results. The current crisis is a direct consequence of decades of austerity and sidelining of a profession that delivers a vital and essential service to our societies. This must change. If we are to keep the promise of Sustainable Development Goal 4 and ensure quality education for all by 2030, governments must invest in teachers and work together with them and their unions to build the inclusive and equitable recovery our students need.
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