Almost all my columns in this newspaper are based on experiences involved with the work that the Azim Premji Foundation does in school education. But I have rarely written about what we do. Our work ranges from working directly with government (public) schools and teachers on the ground, to working on matters of curriculum and policy with various government bodies.

The most complex work is what we do on the ground, at the grass roots. Our team of about 1,000 people is spread across 44 districts in five states. Most of these districts are disadvantaged on multiple socioeconomic parameters. While our engagement in these districts is very intense, we are also active in another 50-60 districts in the same states. So, in all we work in over 100 districts.

We are focused on the professional development of teachers, principals and other functionaries of the education system. We also collaborate with the state governments to help improve academic and institutional processes. All of this requires direct, continuous and sustained engagement with teachers and others. With this kind of deep engagement over many years, not much is hidden between us and the teachers. We get to work in this manner with hundreds of thousands of teachers and thousands of schools.

The past 16 years of these engagements have taught us a lot. Perhaps the most important learning has been that most government school teachers are committed to their work. In my assessment, their commitment is markedly more than that of the average employee of a business organization to their work. This reality of teachers is in sharp contrast to the popular narrative, which paints the average government school teacher as irresponsible and disengaged.

At the core of this popular narrative is the notion of very high teacher absenteeism. Meaning that a large number of teachers just don’t show up at work. People easily talk of absenteeism ranging from 25- 50%. This matter has such grip over the popular imagination that it is often talked of as the single biggest problem in Indian school education. Many of our policy-makers tend to believe in and feed this narrative, and use it to inform policy action.

With all our experience, across years, with hundreds of thousands of teachers, we have never seen absenteeism rates even close to the numbers that are often talked of. So, a few months ago we decided to conduct a field study to systematically assess the rate of teacher absenteeism. While there are nuances to the method, it basically involved going to schools unannounced on an average working day and noting down how many teachers were not in school and for what reason. The study involved 619 schools across six states, and is available on our website under the title Teacher Absenteeism Study.

The study observed a teacher absenteeism rate of 2.5%. This is similar to the conclusion of other research studies when looked at closely, with their observed absenteeism numbers not more than 5%. These numbers are clearly not even remotely close to the numbers in the popular narrative. Some of the other studies are: the World Bank’s The Fiscal Cost Of Weak Governance, published in July 2016, How Much And What Kind Of Teaching Is There In Elementary Education In India?, another World Bank publication, released in February 2014, and Para-Teachers In India in the Economic & Political Weekly, March 2010.

In our study, the overall percentage of teachers not in school was 18.5%. As mentioned before, 2.5% were playing truant, 7% were out of school on other official work, including attending training, and 9% were on bona-fide leave.

These numbers are not very different from what you will find in any workplace. Most employees of any organization are eligible for 25-30 days of leave of various kinds, which means 10-12% of the total working days. This implies that it should be expected that in any such large workforce, on any given day up to 10-12% people can be on leave. In fact, factories plan headcount and workflow on the basis of such an estimate. And is it so surprising to find 7% of the people of your office, out of the office on some legitimate and useful work?

The kernel that has been used to feed the frenzy of teacher absenteeism is the overall number of teachers out of school. Absence from schools for legitimate reasons has been conflated with absenteeism meaning rank truancy. This is done inadvertently and also deliberately. Fortunately in these post-truth days, filled with alternative facts, I don’t need to attempt to explain how such a false notion can grip the popular imagination.

This false narrative is deeply damaging to Indian education. It vilifies and demotivates teachers, who are the most important actors in education. It often leads to ineffectual policy actions, all about controlling and monitoring teachers, rather than enabling and supporting them. It also feeds a culture of mistrust and suspicion, which is profoundly dysfunctional.

Even 2.5% absenteeism is unacceptable, but clearly it is not the biggest problem in Indian education. Would you demotivate 97.5% of your employees for the sake of disciplining 2.5%?

The average Indian teacher, committed to her work, dealing with some of the most challenging working conditions, performing the most complex of roles in our society, needs our support and not vilification. We can start by getting rid of one alternative fact, that of high teacher absenteeism.

Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads the sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/othersphere

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