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How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting contract teachers in sub-Saharan Africa

Based on research provided by Pierre Varly for the TTF, this note examines how COVID-19 is affecting contract teachers in the public and private sectors in several African countries and provides recommendations for improving education resilience in the face of school closures. It has been published to mark the release of the TTF Review of the use of contract teachers in sub-Saharan Africa.

The current global education crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on education systems. At its height, 194 countries had implemented country-wide school closures, affecting 63 million primary and secondary teachers. Sub-Saharan Africa has not been spared during this crisis, witnessing country-wide closures affecting an estimated 6.4 million teachers.


Who are contract teachers?

Contract teachers are recruited through alternative pathways and agree to work outside traditional employment arrangements that are supported by a civil service collective agreement. They receive a salary for the work they perform but do not receive the benefits that apply under public-sector norms and standards, such as annual leave, pension or health insurance.  

While contract teachers may hold similar academic qualifications to their civil service colleagues, they are frequently trained insufficiently in pedagogy, and do not participate in continuous professional development programmes. As a result of their status, contract teachers typically receive lower remuneration and have less job stability, as their employment is subject to public budget fluctuations, market pressures and education providers’ ability to pay.

In practice, there is no single definition of a contract teacher. In francophone sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the terms part-time teacher, state contract teacher, community teacher, national service contract teacher and volunteer all refer to contract teacher subtypes. Teachers in the private sector may also be thought of as contract teachers since they are often paid directly by schools through fees collected from parents. They typically earn less than their public sector counterparts. Various public-private arrangements also exist, with varying implications for the payment of salaries.


Contract teachers as means to expand access to education

The world will need an estimated 69 million teachers, including 17 million for sub-Saharan Africa alone, to meet the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”) in 2030. Due to the teacher shortage in many government-owned schools, contract teachers have been used by the public sector to fill gaps, especially in several sub-Saharan African countries, where the school-age population has grown faster than countries’ capacity to train them. In other countries, remote and rural community-based schools have been set up, based on a public-private model, that employ teachers paid for by local communities and/or through government subsidies.


Understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on contract teachers is essential as they represent a high proportion of the teacher workforce in many countries. They represented 71% of all pre-primary to secondary level teachers in Niger in 2017, according to RESEN, while 64% of primary teachers in Chad were contracted community teachers in 2014. Contract teachers increased as a proportion of all teachers in primary education in Burkina Faso from being negligible in 2002 to 81% in 2015. In contrast, contract teachers decreased as a proportion of the workforce in Mali from 79% in 2009 to 29% in 2014 – as a result of a government decision under pressure from teacher unions to grant civil service status to more than 40,000 contract and community teachers.


Delayed payments and other impacts on public sector contract teachers

COVID-19 has had varying impacts on the employment and salaries of public sector contract teachers. Public sector contract teacher contracts in Cameroon, Niger and Zambia have not been suspended. Moreover, contract teachers have received their salary payments regularly despite school closures.

This contrasts with Togo where “volunteer” contracts are held by 27% of primary, 41% of lower secondary and 25% of  upper secondary teachers. While teachers’ contracts have not been suspended or terminated, regular salary payments have been a challenge. At the end of May 2020, the National Agency for Volunteering (ANVT) regularly paid about 900 contract teachers, but another 9,490 had not received any state support, representing about 1 in 6 teachers in Togo.

Some evidence shows that in Kenya, contract teachers also did not receive their salaries, since payments depend on school management, which was not possible during school closures. The joint UNESCO/UNICEF/World Bank survey of country responses shows that Burkina Faso and Guinea will also suspend payments to contract teachers, while Ghana and Sierra Leone will continue to pay salaries but after applying reductions. According to the secretary-general of the Teachers’ Union in Uganda, Filbert Baguma, contract teachers there, too, have not received regular salary payments.

Although their situation is not directly related to COVID-19, 2,500 new teachers hired in late 2019 in Niger have yet to receive salary payments for the first few months of 2020. Having incurred debts to travel to their postings, teachers were then obliged to leave their posts during the shutdown then return for the reopening of schools on 1 June (Education International, 2020). In Cote d’Ivoire, the Ministry of National Education, Technical Education and Vocational Training announced that payments would soon be made to 10,300 teachers recruited in 2019.

In Gambia, temporary teachers whose contracts ended in March 2020 were unable to reapply for their positions due to school closures, ending their regular income.


Private sector teacher instability

COVID-19 has revealed institutional shortcomings in the management of teachers. For the public and especially for the private sector, contract teachers may not be covered by any regulations in the event of force majeure (a circumstance beyond the control of both parties). Unlike in the public sector, however, private sector teachers receive salaries directly from school providers, making the tracking of payments much more difficult. In other cases, including community schools, a public-private model is used where local parents pay fees to the school, which can in turn be subsidized by central education authorities, to cover costs such as salaries.

Information from surveyed countries suggests many private sector teachers were not paid for April and May, mostly because shuttered schools were not able to recover all tuition fees, which constitute their only source of income. The situation varies between schools, however, depending on their capacity to offer distance or online instruction. In other cases, wages are tied directly to the work teachers do, so teachers are not paid during closures and absences. In rural community schools, implications for payments are less clear since salaries can be comprised of fees paid by parents and government subsidies, or direct payment to teachers.

According to Stéphane De Souza, the general coordinator of the provisional office of private teachers in Togo, teachers have had no salary updates from their employers (Kossi, 2020). The National Director of Catholic Education also suspended salaries of teachers for May and June. To improve matters, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education indicated volunteer teachers will receive government assistance throughout closures (Togolese Republic, 2020); to date, however, volunteer teachers have not received assistance. Similarly, private sector teachers have not been paid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger and Senegal, while in Kenya many teachers’ contracts have been suspended due to a general lack of resources.

To maintain partial salaries for private school teachers in Mozambique, the government has requested that private school leaders negotiate with staff and that parents continue to pay monthly fees. Some parents have not complied, making it difficult for administrators to pay full salaries to teachers. As a result, some schools have negotiated with teachers to lower salaries to 75% during the first month and 50% during the second. Similar reports from Zambia show that many private sector teachers there are currently receiving 50% of their monthly salaries.

Finally, it is important to note that since a significant portion of the early childhood care and pre-primary education sector is private, the implications for pre-primary teachers’ salaries not being paid will be greater than in primary education. Additionally, since 80% of pre-primary teachers in sub-Saharan Africa were female in 2017, the non-payment of salaries at this level primarily affects women.


Towards a more effective response for covering salary costs and building system resiliency

As the main system input to achieving education quality, teachers need to be sufficiently trained and supported. The non-payment of teacher salaries therefore not only poses a significant problem for individual, family and community well-being, but also prevents the delivery of quality education and the achievement of SDG4. The effects on teachers of school closures, including attrition and the hardship experienced by those returning, could seriously harm teaching and learning, and undermines the education system’s ability to withstand shocks, including possible resurgences of COVID-19 when schools reopen.

The non-payment of salaries also places a psychological burden on teachers. The General Coordinator of the Provisional Office of Private Teachers in Togo uttered a cry of despair: “We have nothing left to provide for our families. The situation is serious.” (Kossi, 2020).

Government can show leadership by mitigating some of the most severe impacts. Senegal, for example, set up a contingency fund called Force COVID-19. This response fund of 1,000 billion FCFA (USD 1.6 billion) is intended to support businesses and households through a social and economic resilience programme (PRSE) that guarantees wages, including those of both civil servants and contract staff working in public institutions, until classes reopen.

For the private sector, governments can influence private providers in the regular payment of salaries. Education authorities in Cote d’Ivoire have used traditional and social media networks to communicate the importance of paying private sector salaries. The minister of education even warned the private sector against teacher layoffs and non-payment of salaries while congratulating those that continued to meet payments. The minister went further to stress that the payment of salaries by private providers will be a precondition to the transfer of funds to private sector establishments.

Civil society teacher representatives can also continue to play an important role. This includes both public sector teacher unions and those representing the interests and rights of private sector teachers. Due to non-payment to private sector teachers in Togo, a new teacher union was quickly set up, the National Union of Private Schools and Institutions of Togo (SYNEP-TOGO), which held its constituent general assembly in April 2020. Formed to defend private teachers’ rights and socio-economic interests, SYNEP-TOGO aims to ensure better representation of its membership to public authorities and international organizations to allow for collective bargaining for the private sector (Togo top news, 2020).


Recommendations for maintaining teachers’ contracts and payment of salaries

Member states are reminded of the 1966 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers and articles about teachers’ salaries, and rights and responsibilities. The Teacher Task Force further proposes the following recommendations to ensure teacher salaries are covered now and during future school closures.


Enhance the provision of distance education: The spread of distance education is vital for the continuation of teaching and learning during school closures; however, it is also vital to maintain teacher contracts. Where schools close and teaching and learning cannot be transferred online or through other distance education methodologies (including via mobile phones, broadcast and Interactive radio and television and printed materials), contract teachers will be vulnerable. A partial solution is to develop strategies that help schools and teachers to continue teaching during school closures, including the use of high-, low-, and no-tech solutions. For this, teachers need to receive adequate training and preparation, with special provisions for contract teachers who are excluded from professional development opportunities. They also need access to the Internet and the necessary devices.


Develop financing strategies to cover teacher salaries: The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has announced an additional USD 500 million to support education systems affected by COVID-19 school closures. Governments therefore may have additional leverage to pledge special funding of up to about 4% of total education expenditures to ensure that all teacher salaries – public and private – are paid during short periods of crises. Governments can also make subsidies to private schools conditional on the payment of teachers’ salaries. Countries should also consider innovative funding mechanisms to support teachers during the crisis and the international community should be able to support these efforts.


Strengthen teachers’ voices through teacher unions and civil society representation: Public and private sector teachers – including teachers and support staff in early childhood care and pre-primary education – need better representation. At the same time, relationships between teachers’ unions need to be strengthened to enhance sharing of information related to COVID-19, its impact and effective ways to maintain learning, including distance learning techniques. The collective representation of education support staff and early childhood care and pre-primary education staff needs to be enhanced to improve their standing.


Improve communication with parents, caregivers and communities: Governments can communicate better with parents and caregivers about school closures and their impact on education, as well as with communities about the importance of paying school fees on time, despite the interruption in education, to ensure teachers do not lose their livelihoods.


Improve data on non-civil servant teachers: It is important to collect regular data on contract teachers, including their salaries, training, qualifications and conditions of employment, to enable more effective policy and planning responses when needed.




Teacher Task Force presents new research on the impact of COVID-19 on contract teachers

To shed light on the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on contract teachers in sub-Saharan Africa, the Teacher Task Force conducted desk research and numerous interviews with representatives of ministries, trade union and UNESCO National Commissions. The research is supplemented by data collected through the joint UNESCO/UNICEF/World Bank “Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures.” The Teacher Task Force is also publishing the “Review on the use of contract teachers in sub-Saharan Africa”, which takes a closer look at the situation of contract teachers in 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Teacher Task Force, in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, issued a Call for Action on Teachers to ensure all teachers are protected, supported and recognised. In it, the Teacher Task Force calls on governments, education providers and funders – public and private – and all relevant partners to preserve employment and wages, stressing that governments and all public and private education providers should work to preserve the entire teaching and education support staff, and their salaries and benefits. They will be essential for a rapid and effective recovery when schools re-open.

Blog's photo credits: Dietmar Temps /