Federico Mayor and Mary Futrell on Unesco's drive to attract resources and recognition. Education ministers from around the world were present in Geneva at a ceremony to mark World Teachers' Day, which took place at the close of the International Conference on Education, organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's International Bureau of Education last month.
The day, dedicated to the world's 50 million teachers, was as much an urgent call for action as a celebration. While the importance of education is more widely recognised today than ever, its main providers - teachers - are too often taken for granted.
According to a recent report of the International Labour Organisation, the status of the profession has reached "an intolerably low point".
In many places salaries have fallen, especially in comparison with other professions. Teachers in some parts of Latin America earned, in real terms, in 1992 and 1993 less than half the salary they received in 1980. Studentteacher ratios and teaching hours have increased while training has been reduced. Thousands of underqualified and untrained teachers enter the classroom each year, often replacing qualified teachers who leave for better-paid jobs.
In industrialised countries, violence in schools is taking on alarming proportions: a survey by the American Federation of Teachers reports that one in 11 teachers has been attacked at school and 95 per cent of those attacks were committed by students.
Education International, the world's largest teachers' trade union organisation, reports a steady increase in the number of teachers leaving the job or suffering from stress-related health problems.
The situation is exacerbated by the ever increasing demands made on teachers as a result of technological advances, educational reforms, changes in family environments and problems caused by drugs, poverty and Aids. Meanwhile the high expectations of parents and communities have made teachers an easy target for criticism.
A new, positive approach to teachers is required. The report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century, headed by Jacques Delors, makes the point: "Improving the quality of education depends on first improving the recruitment, training, social status and conditions of work of teachers; they need the appropriate knowledge and skills, personal characteristics, professional prospects and motivation if they are to meet the expectations placed upon them".
World Teachers' Day coincided with the 30th anniversary of the signing of a recommendation on teacher training and working conditions adopted by UNESCO and the ILO. The guiding principles of this text remain as valid today.
We recommend five concrete measures that governments should take: * Give teachers the moral and material recognition they need and deserve, appropriate to their qualifications and responsibilities; * Ensure that they have adequate working conditions, including basic tools for their task; * Pay them a salary comparable with other professions; * Involve teachers and their professional organisations in the formulation of educational policies; * Provide good initial teacher education as well as training on the job.
High-quality education is probably the most effective means to ensure democracy, sustainable development and peace. Teachers must be given the tools and recognition they need for the job.
Federico Mayor is director-general of UNESCO. Mary Futrell is president of Education International.