TEACHER absenteeism in SA is twice as high as that of Namibia and Botswana, and three times higher than Mozambique's, said University of Stellenbosch researcher Nick Spaull in a policy brief this week.
This chronic absenteeism was partly to blame for South African children's poor performance in subjects such as maths and literacy compared to their mostly poorer neighbours, said Mr Spaull.
He based his conclusions on an analysis of data collected in a large comparative study in the region by the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality. The analysis, which was published at the end of last year, tested and monitored grade 6 performance in maths and literacy.
Teacher absenteeism is one of many areas Mr Spaull investigated for his research note. Grade 6 maths teachers were asked how many days they had been absent from school and the reasons. Maths teachers in SA reported being absent for 19,4 days in the school year, compared to 10,6 days for Botswana, 9,4 days for Namibia and 6,4 days for Mozambique.
In five South African provinces, teachers were absent for more than one month in the year or more than 20 school days. The worst-affected provinces were the Eastern Cape (20,8 days); KwaZulu-Natal (24,6 days); Limpopo (20,3 days); Mpumalanga (20,8 days) and North West (22,1 days).
The Western Cape and Gauteng, the two best-performing provinces in SA, reported a much lower teacher absenteeism at 11,1 days and 13,1 days respectively.
Mr Spaull warns that "self-reported absenteeism" is likely to be underreported and within the range of what respondents consider to be acceptable. It is also possible that different countries have "different mental reference points" for what is deemed acceptable, which may have led teachers in SA to report higher rates.
"However, even if this is the case, the fact that most South African teachers believe that being absent for an entire month was 'normal' or 'acceptable' was particularly disconcerting," he said.
The high rates of absenteeism among teachers were reflected in the general survey, which administered the same literacy and numeracy tests to grade 6 pupils in all the countries. SA was found to have a higher proportion of functionally illiterate grade 6 pupils than Mozambique, Namibia or Botswana and of functionally innumerate pupils than Botswana or Mozambique.
About 27% of SA's grade 6 pupils (12 years old) were functionally illiterate - they could not read and understand a short and simple text - while 40% were functionally innumerate - they were unable to translate graphical information into fractions or interpret everyday units of measurement.
Most teachers believe being absent for an entire month was 'normal' or 'acceptable'