Education International
Education International

Teacher policy - where next?

published 12 December 2014 updated 9 January 2016
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All too often, however, teacher reforms do not feature strongly in national education plans and, where they do, they do not pay sufficient attention to addressing the needs of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most at risk of not achieving their potential. Based on a review of national education plans for the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, this article identifies four lessons for strengthening teacher strategies if post-2015 goal of ‘equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all’ is to be achieved.

To overcome the global learning crisis, the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report identifies the need for a mix of reforms to attract and retain the best teachers, improve teacher education, deploy teachers more fairly, and provide incentives in the form of better salaries and attractive career paths. Education plans are an important first step to showing a commitment to such reforms, and providing a benchmark against which policymakers can be held to account. A review of 40 education plans in poorer countries found that, while plans often referred to such strategies in some form, they generally did not pay sufficient attention to breaking the cycle of disadvantage (Hunt, 2014).

Amongst the 40 plans, there are a few promising examples on teacher recruitment and training: Kenya’s plan includes in-service training aimed at boosting the learning of primary school leavers in poorly performing districts. South Africa’s plan goes into more detail than most, highlighting recruitment of new teachers as key in reaching required learning standards. Cambodia, Ghana, Liberia and Papua New Guinea provide scholarships for trainees from disadvantaged areas, often people with specific language skills.

Training for non-formal education teachers is included in 11 of the 40 plans. Uganda emphasizes working with NGO providers to expand primary education to disadvantaged rural and urban areas, including by training teachers in these schools and developing a costed plan to fund their salaries through the government payroll.

The most popular teacher strategy for addressing disadvantage in learning, included in 28 of the 40 plans, is the deployment of teachers to disadvantaged areas. This is important given the unequal distribution of teachers within countries which often leaves remote rural areas and urban slums with an insufficient number of teachers, and so extremely large classes. Cambodia’s plan is notable for including strategies to deploy teachers – especially those from targeted areas and ethnic groups – to the areas where they are most needed. Overall, about 95% of new graduates from teacher training colleges are to be assigned to understaffed schools and to disadvantaged and remote areas every year.

Of the 28 policy documents that address teacher deployment, 22 include incentives, particularly focusing on housing and monetary incentives. In 17 of the policies, housing incentives are mentioned as a way to encourage teacher deployment to difficult areas, and 9 include a monetary allowance. Nigeria proposes a promotion incentive for teachers deployed to disadvantaged areas. Given the importance of female teachers to support girls’ education in Afghanistan, the country’s plan aims to increase the number of female teachers by 50% by 2014 through monetary and housing incentives for female teachers, and special teacher training programmes for women in remote areas and women who do not meet current qualification requirements. However, experience of implementing such incentive policies has mixed outcomes, largely because the incentives are not always sufficient to encourage the best teachers to work in the most challenging environments (Mulkeen, 2013).

Plans are more likely to include specific strategies for making teachers accountable to deliver better results than to propose reforms to motivate teachers to support disadvantaged learners through career promotion. Among the 40 plans, 14 focus on teacher accountability for children’s learning and 20 include a teacher performance management system or competency framework to monitor and guide teacher practice. Performance-related pay for teachers is proposed in Cambodia, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste. In Jamaica, for example, performance-based pay is intended to foster a culture in which teachers apply the curriculum and so improve learning outcomes. Yet, the EFA Global Monitoring Report identifies that evidence on implementing such systems effectively, even in countries with reasonably sophisticated information systems, is weak suggesting caution is needed.

Policies can only be effective if those responsible for implementing them are involved in shaping them. However policy-makers rarely consult teachers or their unions in the design of strategies to improve education quality and equitable learning outcomes. Excluding teachers not only is demoralizing but is also likely to lead to inappropriate policies that cannot be implemented effectively. In a survey in Indonesia, for example, policy-makers favoured promotion opportunities, which only 20% of teachers surveyed considered important, compared with 49% who viewed improving classroom teaching and learning resources as critical (Broekman, 2013). In Turkey, teachers only became involved at the implementation stage of the 2004 curriculum reform. They were highly critical of its design, with many teachers were concerned that the substantial reductions in teaching time built into the new curriculum would lower pupils’ academic performance (Altinyelken and Verger, 2013).

In some countries, the engagement of teacher unions has improved policies aimed at helping disadvantaged groups. In Bolivia, for example, the Confederation of Rural Education Teachers was instrumental in improving education quality among indigenous groups by highlighting the need for bilingual, multicultural education. Its promotion of instruction in the indigenous languages contributed to a decrease in illiteracy. The confederation is the chief advocate of education tailored for indigenous groups and peasants, historically excluded from the education system, and indigenous education rights are now enshrined in the constitution, providing a legal basis on which to advocate for improvements (Gindin and Finger, 2013).

Even where appropriate strategies are identified, they fall at the hurdle of implementation due to insufficient resources. Only 16 of the 40 policy documents reviewed in the EFA Global Monitoring Report included a budget breakdown detailing teaching and learning costs. The costs that were most often included were for teacher education, textbooks and learning materials. Even where plans provide a budget breakdown, very few identify expenditures aimed at overcoming the disadvantage.

Bangladesh is an exception. Its plan presents financial projections associated with strategies to improve learning linked to key indicators designed to measure progress, such as children’s level of learning according to their grade and the subject, the number of schools that receive new textbooks in the first month of the year, and the percentage of teachers receiving continuous professional development. Providing a detailed analysis of financing needs shows that domestic resources are likely not to be sufficient to cover the costs  – the plan identifies that 28% of the teaching and learning component would need to be financed by aid.

Finally, proposals for post-2015 education targets aim to improve equitable quality and learning and, more specifically to ensure sufficient numbers of quality teachers to achieve this objective. The global framework will only be achieved if such targets are also covered in education plans, adapted to the national context as appropriate, such that targets are tracked within countries. Yet, national targets rarely go beyond ones on school access, and even these often do not include ones aimed at narrowing inequality gaps other than in relation to gender. Only four country plans reviewed intend to track progress in inequality in learning beyond gender. One of the exceptions is Sri Lanka, which sets specific regional targets for mathematics and native language, with higher increases expected for lower performing regions.

Four lessons emerge for the future of teacher policies. First, policymakers need to identify the right mix of policies in particular contexts to ensure quality teachers and teaching that is focused on the most disadvantaged - paying attention to recruitment, training, deployment and incentives. Second, to achieve the right mix of reforms, teachers need to be part of the policymaking process. Thirdly, it will only be possible to implement strategies in the education plans effectively if sufficient funds are available - the costs of identified strategies aimed at improving teaching and learning need to be carefully assessed, ensuring that they are backed by the resources to implement them. Finally, the plans need to include specific national targets aimed at overcoming inequalities in learning, accompanied by ones related to increasing numbers and strengthening the quality of teachers to achieve this, if we are to overcome the global learning crisis by 2030.


Altinyelken, H. K. and Verger, A. 2013. The recontextualisation of global education reforms: insights from the case studies. Verger, A., Altinyelken, H. and de Koning, M. (eds), Global Managerial Education Reforms and Teachers: Emerging Policies, Controversies and Issues in Developing Contexts. Brussels: Education International Research Institute, pp. 141–155

Broekman, A. 2013. The rationale and effects of accountability policies on the work and motivation of teachers: evidence from Indonesia. Verger, A., Altinyelken, H. and de Koning, M. (eds), Global Managerial Education Reforms and Teachers: Emerging Policies, Controversies and Issues in Developing Contexts. Brussels, Education International Research Institute, pp. 19–36.

Gindin, J. and Finger, L. 2013. Promoting education quality: the role of teacher unions in Latin America. Background paper for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4.

Hunt, F. 2013. Review of national policies on learning and teaching. Background paper for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4.

Mulkeen, A. 2013. Teacher Policy in Primary and Secondary Education in Development Cooperation. Bonn: Germany, Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. (Discussion Paper.)

UNESCO. 2014. Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All. Paris: UNESCO.