Absenteeism figures ‘only half the story’

2013-03-07 00:00

WE’RE not all shirkers. Look at the bigger picture. That’s what teacher representatives cautioned when asked to comment on Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s revelation last week that South African teachers have the worst absentee rates out of the whole SADC region.

Motshekga reported that SA teachers are absent an average of 19 days a year, compared to the regional average of nine days a year.

But after speaking to a few people, it seems that the absentee figures are only half the story.

South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) spokesperson Nomusa Cembi said she does not approve of the confrontational way in which the minister is dealing with the issue of absenteeism as there are many factors contributing to the issue, including the fact that teachers are overworked and stressed because of their working conditions.

“Our teachers have to cope with big classes and, in some cases, very bad facilities, and there are hardly any support structures for them. They are having to take on more social responsibilities as many pupils have no parents and are battling to cope. The teacher is also becoming a social worker.

“Many teachers are stressed and when they are stressed they are prone to falling sick themselves. Our teachers are having to learn the new syllabus and changes in the curriculum, and the shortage of teachers in many schools means there are no substitute teachers to fill the gaps.”

The HIV infection rate is still a big factor.

The most recent study on HIV and teachers, done in 2007, revealed that 21% of a random sample of teachers in the 25 to 34 age group were HIV-positive.

A 2004 study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found that there was a rising infection rate among teachers and a quarter of teaching students were HIV-positive.

In that study, they predicted that the pandemic would have a huge impact on the quality of education because teachers who were HIV-positive might die.

No one knows if the availability of antiretrovirals in recent years has helped teachers, or if people are still dying despite the availability of drugs, due to other factors.

Liziwe Nkonyana, the executive communications and member affairs officer for Government Employees Medical Scheme (Gems), confirmed that HIV infection among teachers is still significant enough to warrant the scheme having a separate programme for managing it, although she could not confirm how many teachers are HIV-positive.

“That would be breaching our patient confidentiality trust. Confidentiality is very important and every effort is made to safeguard the personal medical information of our members.

“Our HIV programme is managed separately from the other scheme programmes, by a team of health-care professionals, to ensure confidentiality. So if a teacher was HIV-positive, not even the principal would know.”

Nkonyana said the scheme offers a range of specialised services, including antiretroviral therapy, medicines for opportunistic infections and tests for CD4 counts.

They also offer emotional counselling and ongoing monitoring.

Asked if any update on the 2004 study has been done, Dr Khangelani Zuma, research director of epidemiology and strategic information at the HSRC, said: “Unfortunately, there is no update on these results. There is a definite need for this information as the one we have is clearly outdated. We are hoping that the Department of Education will see the critical need to fund such a study sooner rather than later.”

The 2004 study stated that the increased number of orphans and vulnerable children in the school system put more pressure on teachers’ teaching time. Teachers in the study indicated that at times they are supporting their pupils’ financial, physical, and emotional wellbeing, instead of providing pupils with a quality education.

Cembi said the University of the Western Cape is offering teachers a course on how to cope with HIV in the classroom.

The 14-week course, called Breaking the Silence, is a Unesco initiative which equips teachers with the skills to break the stigma of HIV/Aids in the classroom and deal with social issues related to the virus.

Part of the objective of the 2007 study was to plan for the supply of teachers for the various regions. But with the closing of teaching colleges, the shortage of teachers has become more severe.

One principal, who refused to be named, said: “The Department of Education wants to blame us for poor marks and pupils who fail, but when our teachers are sick or dying and we need substitute teachers, it does nothing.”

Cembi said that another factor that needs to be considered regarding the absentee figures is that they also include the days that the teachers were on strike. “This includes the big strikes in 2007 and 2010, when we were fighting for a better wage deal. It is not fair to include those days as absentee days as we were not sick or deliberately absent.”

Another factor, according to National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) spokesperson Anthony Pierce, is that the figures are based on some teachers who are categorised as “displaced teachers”. These are teachers who have been removed from their posts due to disagreements with parents or the principal, and the department has not yet placed them in other schools, although they are still getting paid.

Pierce said there are quite a few teachers in this position and the days they are off count as “absent”. He said that there is also the “pay-day syndrome”, where some teachers take time off after pay day to sort out their personal issues, such as paying bills and going shopping, which should be done in their own time.

Pierce said that these issues usually arise when the schools are badly managed and the principal in charge does not keep tight control of the staff. He said there is also a tendency for some teachers to try to take all of their sick leave in one year, instead of spreading their sick days out over the three-year leave cycle.

“This can all be attributed to bad management and the blame cannot be placed at the teacher’s door entirely,” said Pierce.

He said that the members of Naptosa are well-informed of their responsibilities and they are probably not those teachers who are guilty of abusing the system.


The startling absenteeism among teachers is not what it seems, say educators. Various factors, such as the HIV/Aids fallout, changes in the curriculum, stress and bad planning by the Department of Education, are all to blame. TRISH BEAVER reports

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