Zambia: Challenge to retain teachers

published 2 December 2010 updated 2 December 2010

Delegates at EI’s Africa Regional Conference in Brazzaville, Congo, are debating ways in which to address the enormous challenges facing education and educators across the continent.

One case study is Zambia, whose efforts to strengthen its education system are likely to flounder unless it finds a way to retain skilled teachers like Caroline Chisenga, a mathematics teacher with ten years of experience. She recently upgraded her teaching qualifications with a full degree but has one eye on leaving the country in search of higher pay. On average, a teacher with a diploma qualification receives a salary equivalent to US$400 per month, with housing and other allowances adding another US$100 to monthly pay. This amount, teachers say, is too low to sustain even a small family in the face of high inflation and high cost of living, especially in places like Lusaka and the Copperbelt Provinces. That is what led Chisenga to first leave the country after seven years of teaching in Zambia's second largest city, Ndola.

“My salary was inadequate so I went to Botswana and got myself a job. I served there for a year, and while I couldn't sign a second contract, I got some good money and decided to come back home." Chisenga says she made as much as US$1,500 per month in Botswana. Mathematics and science teachers top the numbers of those who leave in search of better conditions of service, leaving a huge dent in staff numbers at public schools. Zambia’s government faces a massive challenge in finding people to take charge of the more than 250,000 students enrolled in high schools across the country. The average ratio is one teacher to 60 pupils in high schools. “Many teachers that the government trained have since decided to leave the country and serve in other countries,” says Chisenga. “That's how serious the situation is and this has led to a negative impact in schools. If anything, I still look forward to taking another chance out there because there is good money." Patrick Nyambe is head teacher at Lusaka’s South End School, which has 600 pupils. He says that his school needs at least another five science teachers and five mathematics teachers, but the school has only been able to find two for each subject. “Teachers are few. You find that Zambia still has colleges offering two-year training. That’s for primary school, but those are the teachers that are filling in to teach science in schools. The demand is so high because of the exodus of teachers from the country. We need to train more teachers to fill the gaps.”

A recent media report told the story of a teacher in a rural district where a teacher who had only completed grade seven was teaching primary school, so desperate is the need for staff. Low pass rates in science and mathematics are evidence of how the shortage is affecting the quality of education. Zambia currently has 15 government-run teacher education colleges. Additional training is available from the University of Zambia. It costs US$10,000 dollars over three years to train a Fine Arts or English language teacher at Lusaka’s Evelyn Hone College, while training a science teacher at the University of Zambia costs even more. A large number of trainee teachers are beneficiaries of the government bursary system but they have no obligation to take a public school teaching post after completing their studies. And most trained teachers have ambitions of leaving the country.

All of this is aggravated by the decimation of a generation by the AIDS pandemic: a report by the National AIDS Council indicates that 40 per cent of Zambian teachers are HIV positive. One thousand teachers die from AIDS each year. in the past two years, Zambia's education ministry has deployed 20,000 teachers across the country to replace those who have left or died. Roy Mwaba, General Secretary of the Zambia National Union of Teachers, an EI affiliate, has called on the government to quickly improve working conditions for Zambia’s teachers. “We are currently looking at the teacher-pupil ratios. We need to do more to try and retain the few teachers that we have,” she said, underlining that pay is not the only issue for teachers, who are also demotivated by a lack of materials and equipment in classes. “Government needs to ensure that they put in place competitive conditions of service to keep our teacher in the system. There are lots of ways to motivate teachers,” he said. “For instance, government started a program giving solar panels to teachers in rural areas so that they have things like electricity. Those are small but important things that need to be enhanced, apart from just looking at take-home pay.” From his South End School, Nyambe agrees. “The education system in Zambia is such that they put up schools where they have not provided the necessary equipment to make a teacher of science enjoy his work. So you find that this is part of the frustration which is there. As they upgrade these basic schools, they should upgrade the equipment, the science labs and all that.” As Zambia strives towards achieving quality education it is important that the government seriously implements measures that will address teacher motivation in order to prevent more personnel from seeking economic refuge in the region given the economic cost the loss of teachers has on the future of the education system.