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Teacher shortages are a global challenge: Why improving the attractiveness of the profession is critical to ensure the SDGs are achieved

This blog was published on 5 October 2023 on the occasion of World Teachers' Day.

Education systems across the world face an ongoing teacher shortage. Increasing workloads, difficult working conditions and low salaries are helping to decrease the prestige of the profession, globally. These concerns result in fewer graduates wanting to enter the profession and often drive those already in the classroom to other jobs.

World Teachers’ Day 2023 focuses on reversing shortages by emphasizing teaching as a dignified and valued profession at the top of the global Education 2030 agenda and as one of the key levers for achieving SDG 4. As part of the activities and materials advocating for the critical role played by teachers, the Fact sheet for World Teachers’ Day 2023 analyses global data and trends to provide new projections of the teachers that need to be recruited as well as unpack the issue of teacher attrition. Understanding the scope and underlying challenges that cause teachers to leave the profession can serve as a launching point to estimate future teacher needs and to drive the development of teaching into a more attractive career in support of longer-term sustainability.

New projections estimate 44 million additional teachers are needed globally to meet universal primary and secondary education in 2030

The number of teachers needed globally has reduced significantly since estimates in 2016 placed the number at 69 million teachers. However, halfway through the SDG era the current pace falls well short of achieving goals set for 2030. For every additional teacher since 2016, two more are needed.

Sub-Saharan Africa has especially faced challenges meeting targets. The region needs approximately 15 million more teachers, which is only 2 million less than in 2016. Northern Africa and Western Asia (4.3 million) and South-eastern Asia (4.5 million) are also unlikely to hit their goals given current estimates. Meanwhile, Eastern Asia (3.4 million) and Southern Asia (7.8 million) have reduced projected need by nearly half since 2016, but urgent action is still required to meet 2030 targets. Globally we need to increase the number of teachers by 50% by 2030.

Teacher gaps can stem from either needing to fill newly created posts or replacing vacant positions caused by attrition. In sub-Saharan Africa, growing populations mean that 63 per cent of the teacher gap is due to the need for staffing new teaching positions. In regions such as Europe and Northern America (4.8 million more teachers) or Latin America and the Caribbean (3.2 million), anticipated attrition accounts for the vast majority of teacher shortages- 94 and 89 per cent of all needs, respectively.

Attrition is difficult to track, but the estimated rates recently doubled at the primary level

Many countries do not report enough data to estimate attrition rates for all regions. For example, UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS) only includes inputs from 79 countries at the primary level and 48 at the upper secondary level between 2012–2022 (UIS, 2023). For countries that do produce estimates, interpreting the data can be problematic due to teachers re-entering the profession soon after leaving or moving to different schools or districts within a country (UNESCO, 2023).

UIS does make global estimations when enough information is available. Estimates from 2022 at the primary level put attrition rates at 9.06 per cent this means that attrition nearly doubled since 2015. Regional comparisons of teacher attrition are difficult to achieve due to a lack of data and year-to-year fluctuations.

Attrition rates can also vary within countries at different levels of education and from year to year (see Figure 1). Many factors can lead to this variation, including schools or districts in remote locations or facing emergency situations - which can put added stressors on teachers (Falk et al., 2019).

Figure 1. Teacher attrition rates in primary, lower secondary and upper secondary, 2022 or most recent

Source: UIS, 2023.
Source: UIS, 2023.

Men are more likely to leave teaching than women and younger teachers leave teaching at higher rates

In general, male teachers leave the teaching profession at a higher rate than their female colleagues. For example, global male attrition rates in 2021 were 9.2 per cent for primary teachers compared to 4.2 per cent for female primary teachers. At the lower secondary level, males had an 5.9 per cent attrition rate while the female rate was 5.6 per cent (UIS, 2023).

The causes of men leaving the profession vary by context, but they often have more employment opportunities than women in other fields such as construction, business or manufacturing. Teaching at lower levels of education is also often viewed culturally as a profession for women. In 2022, women made up 94 per cent of pre-primary teachers and 68 per cent of primary teachers globally (UNESCO, 2022).

In some circumstances, women do leave the profession more often than men. The causes again vary, but some reasons can include unsafe or unsanitary working conditions or negative views on women’s role in the workforce (UNESCO, 2022).

Few countries track data about when teachers leave the profession, but some studies show that younger teachers are more apt to leave the profession than older ones. An OECD study found that across systems, attrition rates were much higher for teachers younger than age 35 than those aged 35 to 54. Young teachers may leave the profession for a variety of reasons, but many cite low hours or poor leadership as factors (OECD, 2021).

COVID-19 enhanced stressors already present in the teaching profession

The pandemic and subsequent school closures caused stressful working conditions for teachers, with surveys showing increased fatigue and the growing need for support for teacher well-being. This led to widespread reports of teacher shortages, increased absenteeism around the world and trends on social media demonstrating low morale.

While global attention on teacher shortages grew during the pandemic, studies showed patterns of teacher shortages well before COVID-19 closed a single school. In Latin America and the Caribbean, enrolment rates in initial teacher education programmes remained flat from 2015 to 2020 even though teacher shortages persisted in the region during this time.

More recently, trends are still emerging post-COVID as data continue to be collected. Some localized reports have shown that attrition rates dipped during the height of school closures, returning to near pre-pandemic levels or slightly above in the years since. Other surveys show that attrition could soon rise in some contexts, with only 59 per cent of teachers in England (United Kingdom) expecting to still be teaching in 3 years compared to approximately 75 per cent before the pandemic.

Attrition can have wide-ranging impacts

Teacher attrition can have adverse effects on students, other teachers or even entire educations systems. Studies have found that more experienced teachers not only positively impact student test scores, but they also can help improve behaviour and lower absences. When a high number of teachers leave, those remaining may have to pick up extra classes or face larger class sizes. Research in Rwanda found that high rates of turnover led to 21 per cent of teachers teaching in subjects for which they had no training. At the system level, attrition can cause a constant churn of training new teachers, adding extra costs and complexity to teacher management.

Factors that drive teachers away

Many different factors can cause teacher attrition, including low pay, poor working conditions or personal and demographic factors such as an older teaching force nearing retirement. This is the case for example in Italy and in Lithuania where more than half of primary teachers are at least 50 years old.

Low salaries can especially lessen the prestige of a teaching career. And yet, about 50 per cent or more of countries globally pay primary teachers less than professions requiring a similar level of qualifications. Many high-income countries pay upper secondary teachers less than 75 per cent of what comparable professions make, while some teachers in low-income countries live at or near the poverty line.

Poor working conditions, which can range from a lack of supplies to poor leadership to too many administrative chores, can also increase stress and push teachers out of the job. Surveys have found that teachers who experience ‘a lot’ of stress at work are more than twice as likely to want to leave teaching in the next five years.

Policy responses will need to consider local and regional factors driving teachers from the profession to best improve retention rates in each context. The data and analyses presented can enable countries to develop improved policies that ensure the dignity and value of teaching as well as support and sustain qualified teacher workforces.

Building on the outcomes of the Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, the United Nations Secretary-General announced the establishment of a High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession. Supported by a joint UNESCO – International Labour Organization (ILO) Secretariat, the Panel drew together ministries, teachers, students, unions, civil society, the private sector, and academia. The Panel’s report will serve as a contribution to broader efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, as an input to ongoing preparations for the 2024 Summit of the Future and help advance follow-up on the Transforming Education Summit.

Meanwhile, in 2024, UNESCO and the TTF will be publishing the first Global Report on Teachers solely dedicated to monitoring progress towards SDG 4.c with a thematic focus, new data and examples of good practice to address teacher shortages and improve the attractiveness of the profession.

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 Photo credit: UNESCO/Diana Quintela