The Economic Shock of COVID-19 May Hit Private School and Contract Teachers Hardest

This post is part of CGD’s education finance series, where we are examining some of the ways the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis may impact resources to fund education. In the second post of the series, we looked at teacher labor markets and teacher salaries. Now we’re zooming in on part of the education workforce that seems to be disproportionately at risk following the pandemic: contract and private school teachers.

While regular public school teachers may be relatively safe from significant wage reductions following COVID-19 in many parts of the world, the structure of the teacher labor market will likely play an important role in the impact of the shock on the education system as a whole. In an analysis of public versus private school teacher job loss through recessions over time, Jason Kopelman and Harvey Rosen find that during both recessionary and non-recessionary periods, private school teachers in the United States have a higher probability of losing their jobs than public school teachers and find that this gap was largest during the Global Financial Crisis. Based on recent trends, it seems this is likely to be true in many low- and middle-income countries during the current crisis as well.

With teachers making up a substantial portion of the formal sector labor market—and a projected need of an additional 70 million teachers needed to reach SDG 4—it’s important to consider and protect the entire teacher labour market and education workforce, not just the civil servant teachers in public schools. Our analysis of teacher labor markets shows that countries often freeze or slow hiring, as opposed to reducing salaries, following shocks. This could result in an even more severe teacher shortage and is likely to disproportionately impact non-civil service teachers—who are more likely to be women and to be located in remote locations in many places—who may not get their jobs back following school closures. Here’s what we know so far about private school and contract teachers.

Non-civil service teachers make up a substantial part of the education workforce in many low- and middle-income countries

Private schools and contract teachers (i.e, teachers who work on fixed—often short-term—contracts in government schools) play an important role in the education workforce in many developing countries and face disproportionate risks of job loss and salary reductions following the pandemic.

Contract teachers are non-civil service teachers who are often hired locally and have fixed-term contracts. This form of employment is a prevalent feature of many developing country teacher labor markets that may not be captured in previous analyses of the impact of past recessions on education systems. Accurate data on the reliance of education systems on contract teachers is difficult to come by. However, figure 1 shows the wide variation in the prevalence of contract teachers across a sample of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Other estimates suggest that contract teachers are even more prevalent including making up more than 70 percent of the basic education teaching force in Niger and more than 80 percent in Burkina Faso. Contract or incentive teachers (teachers who are only paid a small “incentive” wage) are also common in fragile states and situations of displacement, particularly where refugee teachers may not have the formal right to work or schooling options may be organized informally.

In non-crisis times, contract teachers are often paid less and have fewer benefits than their civil service colleagues. By definition, fixed terms contracts offer less job security than permanent civil servant contracts. Findings from analyses in India and Francophone West Africa also suggest that contract teachers in developing countries are more likely to be women and to be concentrated at lower grades.

A prolonged crisis is likely to make the jobs of contract teachers even more uncertain in the short-run and could contribute to greater teacher shortages—particularly for female teachers—in the long-run in places where contract teachers are prevalent, including the most remote areas and in humanitarian contexts. A disproportionate shortage of teachers in already disadvantaged areas could hinder recovery efforts and could have lasting consequences for the most marginalized groups and educational equity more broadly.

Figure 1. Prevalence of contract teachers

Source: Evans, Yuan, and Filmer (2020). Data represent estimates of the prevalence of contract teachers.

In many developing countries, private schools constitute a large share of the education market. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, more than 40 percent of students are enrolled in private schools and in Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, and Liberia, a majority of students go to private schools. Private schools are far less prevalent in many high-income countries. This could be due in part to concerns over the quality of public options in low-income countries as well as the prevalence of low-fee private schools available to middle-class families in some countries.

Figure 2. Average percentage of enrolment in private institutions across regions and levels of education

Source: UIS data. Latest available data

In some contexts, private schools employ substantial portions of the education workforce. Figure 3 shows estimates of the proportion of teachers employed in private schools. In the Gambia, Uganda, Pakistan, and Liberia at least one third of the entire teacher workforce are employed in private schools.

Figure 3. Proportion of teachers employed in private schools

Source: Evans, Yuan, and Filmer (2020). Data represent estimates of the prevalence of contract teachers. See Table 2.

The impact of recessions on private school participation varies across contexts

When recessions impact household income, families are forced to make choices about spending. While data are not yet available on re-enrolment in private schools, reports suggest that mass closures are likely. While there are reports of wealthier families in high-income countries moving their children from public to private schools to avoid COVID restrictions and closures in public schools, this trend may not hold in lower-income countries. Figure 4 shows that while trends in private school participation remained relatively consistent in Europe and Central Asia following the global financial crisis, participation in Latin America and Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa slowed or dropped following the crisis, particularly at the secondary level.

Figure 4. Private school enrollment over time

Source: UIS data

The proprietors of private schools—usually independent entrepreneurs—have had a tough time during the closure period. This will have a knock-on effect on employment.

The Kenya Private Schools Association claimed that the majority of private school teachers were put on unpaid leave when schools were closed. A survey of private schools in India suggested that 50 percent of teachers did not receive their salary in March, when schools had just closed. If the private education market does not recover, we may see further strains on public education as a result.

Several countries including Afghanistan, Canada, Ireland, Pakistan, and Panama have explicitly excluded private schools from additional education funds made available to help schools respond to COVID. In Morocco, education unions successfully lobbied to stop government support to private schools as part of COVID-19 responses.

We have identified reports of private school teachers losing their jobs or having their salaries cut in at least 25 countries. In South Africa, teacher pay in some mid-range private schools was cut by 20-50 percent in June. Private school teacher salaries were also cut by 25 percent in Mozambique and 50 percent in Zambia. In Jordan, private school teachers, a majority of whom are women, reported not being paid their full salaries while schools were closed despite continuing to teach online. This has led to calls for updated legislation related to gender discrimination at work. Accounts of private school teachers not being paid or losing their contracts while schools were closed were also reported in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Vietnam, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, and Senegal. A joint UN-World Bank survey suggests that contract teachers in many countries including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Kenya, Niger, Togo, and Uganda have missed salary payments and/or had their contracts suspended following school closures. This trend may get worse if parents are unable to afford private school tuition as schools reopen. 

Acknowledging that contract and private school teachers face greater risks of job and salary loss, some countries have offered support

While the overall picture is alarming, not all countries are neglecting non-civil servant teachers. Senegal, for example, set up a fund called “Force COVID” which guarantees wages for both civil servants and contract workers in public schools until schools are able to reopen. In Nigeria, the federal government launched a stimulus package to pay private school teacher salaries. In Côte d’Ivore the government agreed to pay more than 10,000 contract teachers who had missed salaries for three months. In Honduras and Togo, teacher unions have called for support for contract and private school teachers. In some humanitarian contexts including Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, and Mozambique, UNHCR has ensured that incentive teachers still receive pay while schools are closed. Australia and Comoros have also offered financial support to private schools and teachers.

If education systems are to recover, the whole workforce needs to be protected

While there are ongoing debates and conflicting evidence related to whether the level of teacher salaries make a difference for education outcomes, we should try to  avoid a situation in which public education systems face even more severe teacher shortages and/or overcrowding following the pandemic particularly in the areas which already faced disproportionate risks and teacher shortages (especially of female teachers) at the start of the crisis. For example, an analysis by UNHCR identified continuing incentive teacher pay during the crisis as critical to protecting the education workforce and refugee livelihoods. Teachers and the broader education workforce will continue to play a critical role in the continuity of learning during the crisis and will be crucial in the recovery process.

What happens to the education workforce will likely have ripple effects across the formal labor market in many developing countries

In addition to protecting the broader education workforce for the sake of the education sector, it’s also worth remembering that education constitutes a large section of the formal labor market in many developing countries. Substantial job loss in the education sector could have repercussions for the wider labor market and broader economic stability. Ensuring that teacher salaries and jobs are protected through the crisis may be an efficient means through which to provide an employment insurance of sorts to large portions of the formal sector in many developing countries.

The complex trends and dynamics observed in teacher salary protection following shocks indicate that this is an important space to watch as governments consider tradeoffs.  The choices they make will almost surely require a delicate balancing act between the political and economic need to protect public wage bills, while also protecting the larger teacher labor market and other critical components of education sector budgets.

We are grateful to Ana Luiza Minardi and Christelle Saintis for research assistance.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.