By Anna C. Conover, Consultant, and Peter Wallet, Project Officer, International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030
Recurrent teacher strikes taking place across West Africa, including in Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Senegal in the last six months signify serious labour relations challenges and affect quality education. Among their complaints and demands, teachers cite low and unpaid salaries, arrears and stipends; poor working conditions; lengthy and cumbersome promotion processes; understaffed and overcrowded classrooms; and challenges related to certification and lack of professional recognition.
The causes of this situation are numerous. In fact, many countries in the region have made significant progress to improve education access over the past two decades. For example, the net enrolment rate doubled in Burkina Faso and in Niger, reaching 76% and 59% respectively by 2020, a trend that has taken place in most countries in West Africa to varying degrees.
Yet to achieve gains in access, efforts to raise the status of the profession have stalled. Countries in the region have made policy tradeoffs that included the mass recruitment of contract teachers who typically receive lower pay and are given less support than their civil service counterparts. Poor working conditions compounded to the lack of strategy to integrate contract teachers into the civil service, result in growing frustrations which have often led to strikes. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on non-civil service teachers has exacerbated the situation due to the non-payment or delay of contract teachers’ salaries.
Disruption and discontent
Teacher strikes inevitably reduce classroom time for students and add to other factors which affect education quality and lead to learning loss, such as inadequate funding, teacher shortages, poor infrastructure, and so on. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, during the last 5 years, teacher strikes have negatively affected at least one third of the school year. In various other West African countries, frustration has mounted to the point that students have taken to the streets to ask for their right to an education. This occurred last January in Senegal as students, after enduring several weeks without classes and fearing a lack of preparation for their exams, marched to demand a prompt solution to the standoff between the government and teacher unions.
As countries emerge from COVID-19 related school closures, the fear of losing another school year grips students and families. In Senegal, fear over the prospect of an “année blanche” or a lost academic year marked the beginning of 2022. With a series of walk-outs and strikes, teachers demanded their government to honor agreements reached in 2018 regarding compensation structures.
Halts to education do not only affect local populations but also impact knowledge building at a global scale. Academic strikes are currently taking place in Nigeria to demand the implementation of a 2009 agreement to improve compensation and invest in Nigerian university-level research.
One of the challenges for the advancement of teacher interests in the region is the fragmentation into small teacher unions which often go unrecognized by authorities. In Togo, for instance, The Togolese Teachers' Union (SET) has been on strike to demand, among other things, a housing allowance, the hiring of additional teachers to reinforce the workforce and better recognition of the profession. However, for the Togolese government – which does not officially recognize the SET– this strike has no legal basis and has removed over 100 striking teachers from their positions.
Improving mechanisms for social dialogue at all stages of policy development is crucial to prevent and better handle crises
Often characterized as confrontational rather than collaborative, the relationship between governments and teachers’ organizations needs to be reframed. Social dialogue, which the International Labour Organization defines as “[all] types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between or among, representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy” is an important means to align government and teacher objectives and establish harmony between both parties in the pursuit of providing quality education.
As outlined in the Teacher Policy Development Guide, effective policy development requires creating spaces and mechanisms that facilitate social dialogue between governments and all stakeholders, particularly teachers and their representatives. The urgency to address problems precipitated by crises could help forge stronger cooperation between governments and teacher unions for policy development. Unfortunately, in part due to the rapid global measures to close schools, examples of fruitful social dialogue between governments and trade unions were not frequently observed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During education recovery, however, standoffs between teacher unions and their governments may be mitigated by ensuring teachers are included in all levels of the policy development process in a permanent way.
Critical lessons to enhance social dialogue
To strengthen social dialogue in sub-Saharan Africa, both union leaders and governments must have a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities. Union leaders need better training on how education systems work to effectively communicate teachers’ needs through existing channels, participate in policy-making and to advocate for and mobilize their constituents. On their part, governments need to understand their responsibilities to uphold fundamental principles and rights at work including freedom of association and collective bargaining. Joint training with governments, relevant employers’ organizations and teacher unions is one way to strengthen the practice of social dialogue in education.
Freedom of association and collective bargaining as well as union autonomy and legitimacy are also essential to avoid being perceived as being overly politicized. By supporting transparent channels of communication and coming up with clear and unifying arguments, unions can gain the strength needed for effective collective bargaining and negotiation. They should avoid fragmentation and competing interests and instead join together to advocate for the interests of teachers at different levels and situations. Unions also need to better involve women who are often under-represented, particularly in leadership roles.
To foster participation and democratic governance, governments and unions should favor a national or local context-based approach with transparent, participatory and accountable political dialogue. It is also important to ensure that the principal activities that contribute to social dialogue – information sharing, consultation, negotiation – can take place frequently, transparently and with positive results.
Mediation and conflict resolution strategies to avoid losing sight of the common goal of quality education for all
In some cases, mediating bodies and broader social participation in education have been instrumental in facilitating amicable agreements between unions and the government. In Senegal, the National Coalition for Education for All considers that part of its mission is to ensure the appeasement of the educational system, and took part in the successful negotiation of the recent agreements regarding pensions and career validations schemes.
The Teacher Policy Development Guide notes that participation in the policy-making process can take many different forms such as through consultations, formal and informal requests for advice, public hearings, and advocacy by different stakeholders. One example of inclusive policy development is in Ghana where the national Ghana Teacher Task Force was put in place to support the development of its Comprehensive National Teacher Policy (CNTP) to provide a vision and direction for the recruitment, training, development and welfare of teachers. At the core of this task force’s mission was establishing a framework for social dialogue and improving feedback mechanisms at local, regional and national levels.
In Benin, Guinea and Togo, policy-makers and parties consulted in the development of their new holistic teacher policies, agreed to develop an additional module on social dialogue in recognition of its importance at the national context.
Social dialogue to improve education quality
While previous gains in access to education are important, achieving SDG 4 to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” requires a broad approach that involves a better understanding of teachers’ motivations including their efforts to engage in collective efforts to address their needs, including, where necessary, strikes. Institutionalizing social dialogue by including teachers at each step of policy-making and clearly including its role in holistic teacher policies will remain important levers to support collective bargaining in support of teacher ownership of national education priorities and policies.
Teacher strikes in West Africa and in the broader sub-Saharan region remain under-reported in the international press, and insufficiently researched in terms of their impact on addressing teachers’ concerns, learning loss and how they affect education and society. While some evidence shows that strikes have had both short-term and longer-term impacts on students in high-income countries, evidence from sub-Saharan Africa is lacking. Understanding social dialogue’s capacity to mitigate the impacts of strikes in a systematic and context-sensitive way requires innovative approaches from a diversity of contexts and further relevant and timely research.
Photo credit: Education International