The following is an interest story I developed during my work with UNESCO. As much as I enjoy working in development, it is fascinating to interview the people who are impacted by the plans of certain projects.

    “If you discuss education without our teachers, then it is not a discussion on education” declares Apanbil Gifty Anyogbey as she flashes me a confident smile from across the table. “Teachers and their unions must be involved because we have our ears to the ground. We earn our living through the schools and everything about education is actually about us.”  There is nothing adversarial in the tone of the Deputy Secretary of the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT), she assures me that she has arrived in Dakar with an open mind and intends to put forward proposals that address the situation of teachers in her country. Gifty, as she is warmly known, is one of the teacher union representatives participating as an equal partner alongside national education authorities at a capacity-strengthening workshop to develop and implement national teacher policies in four countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  

If you discuss education without our teachers, then it is not a discussion on education. Teachers and their unions must be involved because we have our ears to the ground. We earn our living through the schools and everything about education is actually about us

Teacher shortages threaten SDG4

      Active participation and coordination of teacher unions for the development of more inclusive, comprehensive national teacher policies and education sector reforms is undeniable – and the earlier the better. Faced with a teacher gap of 17 million teachers (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2016) and the world’s fastest growing school-age population, governments in Africa are hard-pressed to ensure equitable access and quality education by 2030. Quality education systems require well-trained teachers. The region however faces severe shortages of trained and qualified teachers especially in low and lower-middle income countries. Teacher attrition rates are high while applications to enter the service are low. The absence of national teacher policies which would define the minimum professional standards and qualifications for the teaching profession have resulted in large numbers of un-trained and minimally qualified teachers. Added to that, the realities of forced migration, violence and border conflicts have increased the occupational risk and unattractiveness of the profession. Given that the teacher target (SDG4c) calls for an increase in the supply of qualified teachers, governments are faced with the need to attract qualified, trained teachers into the service, but also to find ways of retaining the teachers already present in their systems.

Teacher unions partner with Ministries of Education on national teacher polices

      Success is dependent on strong links between a comprehensive teacher policy and education sector plans that are evidence-based (International Teacher Task Force on Teachers for Education for All, 2015). Attaining teacher policy objectives require careful planning and coordination among many different actors.  The State cannot do it alone, and now, it does not have to. For the first time, teacher unions in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda are participating as primary stakeholders in the development and implementation of their national teacher policies towards the realization of SDG target 4.c within the Education 2030 Agenda. The Norwegian Teacher Initiative (NTI)’s “Strengthening multi-partner cooperation to support teacher policy and improve learning outcomes” is a joint UN initiative which draws on the expertise of seven partners: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Task Force on Teachers (TTF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Education International (EI), the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the World Bank. This integrated response among international education partners and governments has resulted in the upfront inclusion of teacher unions as social partners.

Teacher unions cover new ground under NTI

     This is no easy accomplishment as teacher unions have not previously found themselves in such positions of influence. “Before now, teacher unions were consulted at the pre-validation or validation phases, but what was the point of that? In that scenario, everything had already been decided for the teachers. Nothing could be changed – apart from a few grammatical errors” recalls Bonaventure Belem, Coordonnateur National des Syndicats de l’Education (CNSE) du Burkina Faso and Secrétaire Générale national du Syndicat National des professionnels de l’Education Préscolaire (SYNAPEP). He admits that this is one of the rare occasions in which teacher unions find themselves contemplating and participating in the early, technical stages of policy analysis and design where choices are being prepared considering education budgets and the constraints for his country context.

Before now, teacher unions were consulted at the pre-validation or validation phases, but what was the point of that? In that scenario, everything had already been decided for the teachers. Nothing could be changed – apart from a few grammatical errors

Teacher unions transition beyond bread and butter issues

     The shift places teacher unions in new and somewhat unfamiliar territory. Teacher organization representatives like Gifty and Bonaventure acknowledge not having the immediate knowledge and skills needed for effective participation in social and policy dialogue. Teacher unions typically function as organised labour or pressure groups in education (Mafisa, 2017), and relationships with national education authorities are often strained as a result of demands made on behalf of their membership. Education International (EI) stepped in to provide capacity-building workshops in social dialogue to teacher unions and their leaders in all four countries. What EI found was that many of the teacher unions were not aware of the plans for the education sector in their countries, and lacked the information needed for participatory engagement.  EI was able to help teacher unions to examine the sector plans received directly from their Ministries of Education, to develop opposition papers and to propose action plans that would feed into decision-making processes. For Richard Otunu Eringu, EI’s Regional Coordinator for Africa, the NTI has allowed teacher unions to get involved in a meaningful and constructive manner. He adds that “before, people tended to look at teacher unions as if they were only about their bread and butter. Now, they [teacher unions] are discovering themselves in serious and structured discussions beyond those of the bread and butter issues.

Social dialogue: the glue of successful education reform

     According to UNESCO, teacher union involvement is not only a right, but it is essential to successful policy implementation. However, without improved capacities in social and policy dialogue in education, the impact of teacher unions will be weak. Building and strengthening that kind of capacity takes time and investment. For people like Gifty, social dialogue is as important as the teacher policy itself. She believes that this was where her country got lost. “If there is a policy and no communication for people to understand how it is to be implemented, then you have not done anything. There can be dialogue in the classroom, at the school level, at the district level and even at the community level. Social dialogue training should not only be budgeted for but also enforced.”

All four beneficiary countries have shown keen interest in social dialogue for their contexts. Perhaps this is because the NTI has demonstrated that teacher unions trained in best practices of negotiation, consultation and information sharing with other sector actors enhance the quality of a national teacher policy.  Their calls for further support in social dialogue have not gone unnoticed by NTI partner focal point Oliver Liang, Head of the Public and Private Services Unit at the International Labour Organization (ILO).  He agrees that “social dialogue ensures that the very people that need to deliver education – teachers and their managers – are involved in developing policies that will affect them. Good social dialogue allows teachers and managers to bring in their practical knowledge to the development of education policies and ensures support from them when new policies or technologies are implemented in schools.” The ILO has been a major proponent of social dialogue and has plans to produce a manual on social dialogue in education as one of its many global products.   

social dialogue ensures that the very people that need to deliver education – teachers and their managers – are involved in developing policies that will affect them

Teacher unions to help put the teacher situation on the education agenda

      As countries look towards the future and chart their response to SDG4, their individual education agendas vary based on national development priorities. However, to lose sight of the role that a national teacher policy plays in addressing the teacher crisis would be the equivalent of dropping the ball.  Teacher unions must ensure that the teacher issue is not just placed on the education agenda, but that it remains visible. It is for this reason that GPE, EI, UNICEF, UNESCO and the TTF have been working on increasing teacher participation in local education groups in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda. The LEG, is defined as collaborative forum of stakeholders within the education sector who develop, implement, monitor and evaluate Education Sector plans at the country-level (GPE, 2014). It is an opportunity to ensure further partnership, support and resources needed to develop and implement national teacher policies.  

For country focal points like Misheck Yagontha Munthali, Director at the Directorate of Teacher Education and Development (DTED) in the Ministry of Education, all national actors have their part to play and he expects the Teachers’ Union of Malawi (TUM) to do just that. He recognizes that teacher union involvement is a work in progress and that things don’t always go smoothly. He admits that when there are delays, tensions tend to flare up, but adds that, “everyone comes in with their perspective and their experiences. We weren’t always on the same table. But at least, by coming together in a more structured manner, we know what’s going on, what have been the challenges, more importantly, how can we continue to work together.” The true test of course lies in the abilities of these countries to  grow and sustain these kinds of synergies in the long-term. Gifty, however remains hopeful, and even resolute, that this is just the beginning, “The initiative set out who should be brought on board. We all agreed that there is a need for the teacher policy. This is the way to go. We are going to find ways to sustain it.”

About the NTI

The Norwegian Teacher Initiative aims to mobilize and key global education partners in favour of teachers and teaching for improved learning, and has two main outcomes: 1) improved coordination among partner organizations and 2) strengthened national teacher policies that impact teaching, learning and contribute to teacher targets. It is generously funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad).


  1. Educational International. (14, June 2018). Burkina Faso: Education unions are key to developing quality policies for teachers. Retrieved from
  2. Educational International. (20, September 2018). Building education unions’ capacity for social and policy dialogue in Uganda and Malawi. Retrieved from
  3. Educational International. (14, May 2019). Ghana: Accra forum strengthens social and policy dialogue in Africa. Retrieved from
  4. The International Teacher Task Force on Teachers for Education for All. (2015). Teacher policy development guide. Paris, France: UNESCO
  5. Mafisa, L. K. (2017). The role of teacher unions with specific reference to South Africa. The Online Journal of New Horizons in Education, 7 (4).
  6. United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2018). Improving teacher support and participation in local education groups. Paris, France: UNESCO.
  7. United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. (4, June 2019). Strengthening social and policy dialogue for stronger teacher policies in Africa. Retrieved from

Candice Sankarsingh designs digital and non-digital learning environments and products to motivate and improve human performance. She especially likes working in new knowledge areas and non-traditional, development contexts.