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Why the age of the teacher workforce is putting education under strain

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The age profile of teachers has been in the news in 2020 due to worries about differential COVID-19 risks related to age. Yet for the return to classrooms to be successful, the participation of all teachers is needed to ensure education can continue. 

Given their vulnerability, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and Education International’s General Secretary David Edwards, in a joint statement underlined that,

”In this context, as we see positive developments regarding vaccination, we believe that teachers and education support personnel must be considered as a priority group.”

While a country’s balance between older and younger teachers matters for many different reasons, data on teacher age is patchy. The main source is TALIS, the Teaching and Learning International Survey, conducted every five years by the OECD.

The survey covers 48 countries. Teachers’ average age differs widely, from 36 in Turkey to 50 in Georgia. Only Saudi Arabia (5%) has fewer teachers aged over 50 than Turkey (6%). At the other extreme, more than half of teachers are aged over 50 in Lithuania (57%), Estonia (54%), Georgia (53%), Latvia (51%) and Bulgaria (51%).

Teachers by age. Secondary, under 30 years / Secondary, 50 years and over, Percentage, 2018 or latest available

Teachers by age

 

As the chart above shows, Italy and Greece are also among countries where teachers skew older, while in Chile and the United Kingdom they’re younger.

Data from lower-income countries are harder to come by, but a 2006 UNESCO paper found they also show wide differences: half of Kenya’s primary teachers were aged over 50 in 2003, whereas in Niger they were much younger due to a recruitment drive that saw the introduction of many poorly trained contract teachers to meet universal primary education (UPE) goals, and a policy of mandatory retirement after 30 years.

Data on teachers’ experience, which correlates with age, also shows wide gaps. For example, TIMMS – a four-yearly international study – found in 2019 that just 6% of fourth-grade science teachers in Kuwait have over 20 years’ experience, compared to 83% in Lithuania.

Age and experience matter as more experienced teachers are typically paid more. This may incentivise governments to save money by preferring younger teachers – as a report by South Africa’s education department confirmed.

Age profile also affects government planning. A UNESCO paper on pre-primary teaching notes: “countries with large numbers of teachers in their fifties and older need to prepare carefully so that training and recruitment mechanisms are in place to ensure future needs are met”.

 

Does age matter to outcomes?

The report from South Africa’s education department says cost is not the only reason they prefer to employ younger teachers – they also have more up-to-date training and skills.

On similar lines, a study in Italy found that younger teachers were associated with higher grades, with possible reasons including higher quality of recent training and higher levels of enthusiasm.

On the other hand, analysis by the OECD found that a country’s teacher age profile is not correlated with its students’ performance in PISA assessments. For example, both Singapore and Abu Dhabi have relatively young teachers, yet Singapore scores high educationally while Abu Dhabi does not. High-performing Estonia and lower-performing Bulgaria both have older age profiles.

Likewise, a study in the UK found that “there is no negative link between the age of teachers and educational outcomes”.

However, it makes the point that a balance of old and young is beneficial: “There is also evidence that older teachers add to the overall educational environment through extending the range of experiences, perspectives and knowledge that students can draw upon.”

A columnist in the UK’s Guardian newspaper has the same view: “In a few years’ time, I’ll be a teacher of above average age for England… Yet I feel hopelessly unprepared to become the new ‘old guard’… There is an experience vacuum being created in our schools that robs junior teachers of the role models they need to help them improve.”

 

Policies to find the right balance

While countries with older teachers need to step up recruitment, those with younger teachers must think about policies to retain existing teachers. Prioritising recruitment over retention risks a high rate of attrition: in the UK almost one in three new teachers leave the profession within five years.

UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning identifies three key policies for teacher recruitment, other than higher salaries: more diverse career opportunities, formalised support networks such as peer learning, and more transparent recruitment processes.

The reasons why teachers leave teaching need more research, according to a UNESCO review in sub-Saharan Africa that found resignation accounts for as many teachers leaving the profession as retirement. A study of Swedish teachers finds “lack of support from administrators, student discipline issues and lack of input and decision-making power” are more important than pay.

OECD analysis of the 2018 TALIS results finds that overall, “education systems will have to renew at least one-third of their teaching workforce in the next 15 years”. 

Available data may paint a convoluted picture, but what is clear is that each country will need to find its own balance between efforts to recruit teachers and efforts to retain them.

Photo: Vicki Francis/Department for International Development