It is one of the biggest problems facing schools in the developing world: how can students learn when their teacher isn't there?
Now one African country is introducing a novel technological solution to the teacher absenteeism holding back its education system. When people in Uganda pass a school and see children playing outside when they should be in lessons, they are being asked to report the situation to a special government hotline.
A pilot scheme has already prompted a good response from parents, according to Maria Kiwanuka, Uganda's minister of finance, planning and economic development. She said it had led to government intervention in schools, with teachers and principals being reprimanded for going AWOL.
"It is all part of accountability, making sure that we are getting the best output from the admittedly limited (financial) input," Ms Kiwanuka told TES. "Parents in Uganda are really passionate about education. We are tapping into that passion. We have to."
A World Bank and Harvard University investigation in 2006 into teacher absence in six developing countries revealed that Uganda had the biggest problem, with more than a quarter of teachers absent during unannounced visits to primary schools (for children aged 4-11). The East African country was followed by India, where a quarter of teachers were absent and where the government is still struggling to deal with the problem.
Last year, a summary of research into teacher absenteeism in developing countries, funded by the UK government's Department for International Development (DfID), identified health, "family matters", "out of school duties" and poverty as possible factors behind the issue. While absenteeism had fallen because of direct interventions such as monitoring and incentives, more needed to be done to improve educational achievement and teaching quality, the study found.
But Uganda's government believes its attempt to remedy the problem is ingenious because it does not involve the cost of increasing teacher pay or of constant official checks on schools.
"It's true that teachers and education in general are underfunded," Ms Kiwanuka admitted. "`We are only spending 15 per cent of the budget on education and we really can't spend much more. So how can we ensure that there is better accountability, value for money?"
She said the solution was inspired by the health sector, where midwives in rural areas of Uganda were provided with mobile phones so that they could call in and register births.
"Now that idea is being rolled out to schools," the minister said. "If parents go past and see a school, they can always tell who is in class and who is not." If people reported their suspicions, the ministry of education could investigate, she added.
Rapid growth in mobile phone ownership has made the initiative possible. In 2003, just 3 per cent of Ugandans had mobile subscriptions, according to the World Bank, but by last year that had risen to 48 per cent.
"What you need to do is give them a toll-free number so they won't have to buy airtime to call," Ms Kiwanuka said.
The World Bank and Harvard study found that an average of 19 per cent of primary teachers across the six countries were absent from schools visited. The DfID research said that absenteeism had been put at anywhere between 3 and 27 per cent in developing countries.
The World Bank and Harvard study found that absence rates were generally higher in poorer regions, but that there was "little evidence that pay strongly affects absence".
The Ugandan situation also raises questions about the ability of state schools to deliver education compared with low-cost private schools, which are expanding their reach.
"When you compare the rural government or government-aided schools with the rural, totally private schools, the private schools were doing better," Ms Kiwanuka said. "But their teachers were paid less per month and were only paid for nine months of the year - they don't get paid during vacation. So why were they doing better?"
Photo credit: Getty
Original headline: No teacher present? Phone an official friend