Using technology to improve the equity of teacher allocation in Sierra Leone: the challenge and a way forward
Historically, the Sierra Leonean government has struggled to attract teachers to work in the most hard-to-reach areas of the country. Today, the country’s education system has one of the highest pupil-to-qualified-teacher ratios in West Africa.
The challenge of attracting teachers is most acute for schools in rural locations. Here, the pupil-to-qualified-teacher ratio currently sits at 76:1. This ratio compares to 44:1 for schools in urban centres.
Despite recent efforts to deploy trained and qualified teachers to remote schools, these attempts have not achieved the intended results. In 2019, nearly a fifth of teachers allocated to schools in Bonthe district failed to take up their posts.
What factors do teachers consider when deciding where to work?
Teachers are encouraged or discouraged by various factors when it comes to working in remote and hard-to-reach areas. Earlier this year, the EdTech Hub team reviewed a number of case studies from low- and middle-income countries to understand what factors may shape the decision of teachers to work — or not work — in specific schools. This is what we found.
- The location of schools significantly impacts where teachers want to work
Nearly two-thirds of the best performing candidates on Peru’s national teacher examination went on to work in urban schools in 2018. In the same year, only 15% of the same group chose to work in remote locations where more than half of all vacancies were left unfilled.
Why was this the case?
In Peru, candidates seemed to prefer schools that were close to their hometown, their previous job, and their teacher training programme. However, candidates were willing to teach elsewhere if the school was based in a wealthy location. Elsewhere, teachers have shown a preference for schools that are close to health facilities and near to their family homes.
- The preference to work in urban areas tends to correlate with the availability of basic facilities and services
A school building in a rural area of Bombali district in Sierra Leone
Teachers often prefer to work in schools with better working conditions and infrastructure. In other words, teachers would rather work in schools with concrete floors, covered classrooms, running water, electricity, and functioning toilets.
In Malawi and Uganda, the availability of free housing has played a crucial role in attracting teachers to work in remote schools. In Ghana, meanwhile, female staff have previously highlighted a lack of suitable sanitation facilities as a barrier to relocating to a more rural location.
- Inadequate, irregular, and non-existent salaries influence where teachers choose to work
The payment of low — or no — salaries is a major challenge in Sierra Leone, where more than half of all teachers receive no government wage. Even though wages for government-paid teachers are comparable to the salary of other public sector workers, teachers often lack access to other benefits such as child care.
How does this issue affect where teachers prefer to work?
Delayed and irregular salary payments can force teachers to find other jobs to provide for themselves and their families. In this context, teachers may opt to stay in a location where they can find supplementary work. In Sierra Leone, teachers in rural locations often farm in addition to their teaching, while teachers in cities are more likely to offer private tutoring. Similarly, government teachers in urban parts of Niger teach additional classes at private schools during free periods.
- Teachers often prefer schools with opportunities for professional development, especially when these opportunities lead to a higher salary and career progression
Teachers view professional development opportunities as a chance to increase their salary and a potential gateway to obtaining a government salary. However, teachers in rural areas are less likely than those in urban areas to participate in training sessions or complete a higher education course.
Moreover, clear and transparent criteria for promotion are particularly important in the context of professional development. In Malawi, teachers reported that a meaningful career path in which past training, experience, and performance were recognised could increase their motivation and level of attendance.
- The preferences of teachers tend to vary across age, gender, experience, and qualification
Previous studies have shown that the preferences of teachers often vary based on their background and personal characteristics.
How do the characteristics of teachers affect where they want to be placed?
In the past, female teachers have been found to prefer schools that are closer to their hometown. Meanwhile, qualified teachers are often more willing to move further away from their hometown. These trends may reflect the limited chances that women have to participate in professional development programmes.
How can technology help decision-makers improve the equity of teacher allocation in Sierra Leone?
Currently, the Government of Sierra Leone is looking to use technology to support data-driven decisions around teacher deployment. In particular, decision-makers plan to use geographic information systems (GIS) — technology-supported systems for creating, analysing, visualising, and managing data — to design programmes that will attract teachers to remote areas.
Last year, the Education Workforce Initiative outlined a series of different options for a GIS-supported teacher allocation programme. One of these options included an innovative preference matching model that is based on a Nobel-Prize-winning intervention from the health sector. By accounting for the preferences of teachers in the deployment process, the model aims to motivate teachers to work and stay in underserved areas.
Now, EdTech Hub, Fab Inc, and the Education Commission have come together to conduct research on the factors that influence the preferences of Sierra Leonean teachers. In doing so, we aim to generate evidence to support the government to harness geospatial information systems in the near future.