Para-teachers in India: a review

Analyzing the policy of appointment of contractual teachers in formal schools using Frank Fischer’s framework

Post-Independence India witnessed an uneven growth in the area of school education. States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka made rapid strides in universalizing the primary education. These states enjoyed a historical advantage in terms of literacy and access to education. The demand for education, in these states, was further fuelled by the presence of strong social movements which saw education as an instrument for social transformation. Critical consciousness among the masses, coupled with emancipatory politics resulted in the significant contribution towards the public financing and provisioning of education (Kapoor, 2004). A large number of other states in India, in contrast, lacked any such arrangements. The dominance of Congress, with its factional politics, ensured the continuation of the semi-feudal form of governance in these regions (Sudipta Kaviraj, 1988). Politicians, instead, used education and its sites as a tool to advance their political goals. In such as an institutional arrangement, teachers were nothing but pawns in the hands of the politicians, to be used and discarded at will (Gould, 1972). Appointed locally, teachers were paid the lowest sum in the hierarchy of state bureaucracy. Despite being projected as the beacons of hope against feudalism and sectarian interests in the popular Indian imagination, teachers hardly exercised their agency in terms of curriculum and pedagogic approach[1]. Reduced to a mere ‘state and local agent’, teachers turned themselves into the ‘meek dictators’ of classrooms that had been devoid of any connection with the social and cultural lives of the learners (Kumar, 2005). Kothari Commission (GoI 1966) showed similar concerns in its wide-ranging commentary on Indian education and suggested a way forward by proposing measures such as; common schooling system, the introduction of integrated courses of general and professional teachers, and increasing the educational spending to six per cent of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Lack of political will, conjoined with the political and economic stability sealed the fate of the committee’s recommendations, with the concerns of teachers and teaching becoming the final casualties.

The decade of the 80s saw the renewed interest in education. The first comprehensive National Policy on Education (NPE) was launched in the year 1986. It promised schooling system (Navodaya Vidyalaya) to rural elites and further proposed a scheme for mass education (Operation Blackboard) which, in turn, sought to provide minimal facilities to all schools. The 70s and 80s were also the decades when India registered the highest percentage of population growth. The previous gaps in the literacy had not filled yet, and a new generation was ready to embrace the schooling system. The overall trend was towards the decentralization of the governance and the democratization of the politics (Yadav, 1999). To fulfill these aspirations, local governance structures were created. The policy-makers hoped that these institutions would ensure local participation and encourage decentralized decision-making, resulting in the increased efficiency and accountability of the system. The commitments Indian government had made at Jometian Conference (1990) along with the looming fiscal crises, added a sense of urgency into these reforms. The help came in the form of the structural reforms which sought to change the nature of educational governance in India. The newly established program, also called District Primary Education Program (DPEP), proposed a time-bound target for achieving Univeral Primary Education under the framework of Education for All (EFA).

Though the practice of appointing the teachers on the contract basis started with DPEP, one could find a precursor to this in the non-formal education programme launched by Government of India as a mean of reaching out to out-of-school children in the age group of 9–14. States such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh had existing structures, under which teachers were appointed on the contractual basis. More of an exception than the norm, these programs were the efforts by the states to reach out to remote areas (Govinda, 2005). It was DPEP project documents which, for the first time, made references to a separate cadre of teachers, called para-teachers. The project documents did not elaborate much on the process through which the teachers would be appointed. Instead, it provided state governments with a broad policy framework with a view to maintaining the quality standards and setting norms for utilization of the resources. It was left to the states to decide the norms and criteria for the appointment of para-teachers.

Para-teachers, its rationale, and expansion

Official policy accounts offered various reasons for the appointment of para-teachers. The policy goals also varied across the states. Impart quality education, mobilizing community participation, assisting existing teachers in school management, addressing adverse teacher-student ratio, and counter teacher absenteeism were some of the reasons cited by the states as a reason for the appointment of para-teachers (Govinda, 2005). While DPEP documents mooted the idea of contract teachers in formal schools, it was the recommendations of National Committee of State Education Ministers (1999) which explicitly put the policy objectives in the public domain:

“Lack of community control over teachers, teacher absenteeism, and low teacher motivation is often cited as reasons for not recruiting new teachers but for only concentrating on reducing wastage and internal inefficiency of the educational system. Even after making allowances for enrolment in private unaided and unregistered private schools, the teacher shortages are very significant. It is on this account that the recruitment of para teachers has to be considered a priority if all vacancies have to be filled up in the shortest period of time. The issue of teacher/para teacher recruitment has to be addressed by all states as the long-term implications are for the states.” (GOI1999: 22–23)

The committee further observed:

“…for meeting the demand for teachers in a manner that the state can afford. The appointment of pay scale teachers to fill up all teacher vacancies as per teacher-pupil norms would require resources that state governments are finding increasingly difficult to find. The economic argument for para-teachers is that the provision of teachers as per requirement is not possible within the financial resources available with the states. The non-economic argument is that a locally selected youth, accountable to the local community, undertakes the duties of teaching children with much greater interest. The accountability framework is well defined and by making the local authority as the appointing authority, the para teacher’s performance assessment is the basis for his/her continuance. The quest for UEE as a Fundamental Right signifies a certain sense of urgency in doing so. This urgency calls for appropriate modifications in the National Policy in order to respond to local felt-needs. The recruitment of para teachers is a step in this direction.” (ibid)

It is clear from the passages that the policymakers prioritized one objective over others. They essentially saw para-teachers as a substitute to the regular teachers. Absenteeism and unaccountability were the concerns which bothered the policymakers the most. Instead of blaming the state governments for their failure to recruit regular teachers, the policymakers denounced teachers for their ‘inefficiency’ and ‘wastage’. This line of reasoning was continued with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA), which preceded DPEP.

Verifying the ‘success’ of para-teachers as a policy measure

While the DPEP policy document provided a list of policy goals, which were to be achieved by appointing the para-teachers in government schools, the impact assessments of this scheme have concerned themselves to exploring the following questions;

i. What effect para-teachers’ have had on the teachers’ absenteeism?

ii. In what ways the introduction of para-teachers impacted the learning outcomes?

iii. How cost-effective have been the intervention of para-teachers in comparison to other alternatives?

The answer to the first question was rather straightforward. In a study conducted by one of the implementation agencies of DPEP in 1999 found ‘para-teachers more dependable than the regular teachers’. This study was criticized for its apparent bias and the conflict of interest. Since then, many other studies have tried to look at the impact of para-teachers on teachers’ absenteeism, student learning outcomes and overall efficiency of the schooling.

Kremer (2005) investigated the question of teacher absenteeism in India and found one-fourth of teachers absent on the day of the visit. However, he did not find any significant difference in the absence rates of regular and contractual teachers. In another study conducted across the states of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh found absent rates among contractual teachers substantially lower than regular teachers. In Andhra Pradesh government teachers were absent for on average 25.4 days, the number among contractual teachers were 7.5 days in a year (Sankar, 2008a). While the absent rate among regular teachers was twice in comparison to para-teachers in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar had similar absenteeism rate for both the regular and contractual teachers (Kingdon and Banerjee, 2009). Travel time from home to school, the years of experience, and the nature of the service were some of the reasons cited for the differentiated outcomes of teachers absenteeism in both the states.

“Contract teachers would be more cautious in absenting themselves from school frequently while regular teachers do not fear any adverse effect of absence on their job”.(EdCIL, 2008:20)

Another set of studies focused on the appointment of contractual teachers on the performance of the students. The study conducted by EdCIL (1999) did not find any difference between the students’ performance in grades 3rd and 5th. However, the report mentioned the fact that para-teachers had rather difficult task to do as children in para-teacher schools were generally from socio-economic disadvantage sections. Pratichi Trust (Rana et al 2002) found higher satisfaction among the parents in West Bengal when their children were taught by the contractual teachers. The attempt was also made to look at the comparative performance of the regular and contractual teachers by controlling for the socio-economic background of their parents. Using the data from 360 schools and 4,800 students across three states, it found no significant difference between the performance of regular and contractual teachers (Sankar, 2008b). The most recent study conducted on the performance of contractual teachers contradicted the previous findings and showed a clear advantage to schools where an extra contract teacher was appointed. The study claimed that the appointment of an extra contractual teacher led to the increase of pupil-teacher-ratio (PTO) and reduced teacher absenteeism from the schools (Muralidharan K. and Sundararaman V., 2013). Many of these studies were criticized for their technical design quality to unequivocally establish such findings. (Govinda and Josephine, 2005).

None of the studies, mentioned above, seemed interested in studying the impact of the appointment of teachers by the local authority on the overall accountability at the school level. This was a big miss among all the assessments, especially because it was touted as a major reform towards the accountability.

Investigating the ‘situational validity’ of para-teachers

Situational validation seeks to evaluate a policy by probing the ‘validity of the situational definitions and assumptions upon which the program objectives have been constructed’ (pg. 57, Fisher). The critics have raised similar concerns about the policy of appointing the contractual teachers in the government schools. They did not find it convincing that the appointment of para-teachers would lead to the universalization of education, especially when many other countries (with per capita income comparable to India at that time) had achieved these goals by significantly increasing the funding. They argued that while we might celebrate the appointment of the para-teachers as a cost-effective measure, we would be a paying heavy cost for it in the future. Appointing a pool of unqualified and untrained teachers might have unintended consequences, as it was seen in case of Togo. Vegas and Del Laat (2003) found that contract teachers in Togo underperformed regular teachers even after controlling for student, household, and school characteristics. Appointment by the local panchayat, instead of the system might also result in the local elite capture, where local elite might use the school resources to further their political aims[2]. Being residents of respective gram panchayat regions, the para-teachers might enjoy the political ‘patronage’ and it might become even more difficult to monitor or evaluate their performance. Researchers have also shown that the para-teachers, once appointed, were hardly replaced or sacked and in many instances, they were absorbed by the system as full-time employees (Kingdon and Sipahimalani-Rao, 2010). As a result, the purpose of appointing the para-teachers in government schools was defeated.

The argument that appointing the teachers on contractual basis would motivate them teacher effectively seems paradoxical. In fact, studies have shown that individuals who have joined as para-teachers have done so in expectation that their appointment would eventually be regularized. It might turn counter-productive as it has been in case of many states. States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand have seen regular protests and sit-ins by para-teachers demanding regularization of their jobs. Indecisiveness on the part of state governments has ensued legal battles, impacting the functioning of the schools[3].

‘Societal-level concerns’ and the appointment of para-teachers

At ‘societal vindication’ level, ‘the evaluation turns to the broader policy goals from which the program objectives were derived and examines their instrumental and contributive value for the larger social system as a whole’ (pg. 59, Fischer). In case of appointing the para-teachers in government schools, many critics argued that this attempt was a step forward in institutionalizing the discrimination against the sections which were already marginalized. It would reproduce the inequalities prevalent in the society and would be a disastrous step for peace and social harmony.

“The government was not perturbed that its policy stance was tantamount to institutionalising discrimination against the poor, a majority of whom would be Dalits, the tribal people and religious or cultural minorities, two-thirds of each segment being girls. Most of the disabled children will also fall in this category, earmarked for discrimination.” (Prof. Anil Sadgopal, published in Frontline Volume 20 — Issue 24, November 22 — December 05, 2003)

Many policy observers saw the appointment of para-teachers as a shift towards ‘systematic privatization’. For them, appointing contractual teachers in the school system was just a start and indicated towards the state’s gradual withdrawal from the social welfare, increasing the scope of privatization in every sphere.

Additionally, Burnout among the para-teachers (Manjhi, 2011) and their pitiable working conditions might force talented youth to embrace other professions, depriving schools of good teachers and students of a good education. As education is closely associated with economic prosperity (Hanushek, Wößmann, Jamison and Jamison, 2008) and is seen to positively impact social indicators such as nutrition, maternal health, crime prevention etc., it would be economically prudent to investment in the education, rather than the less. Unsurprisingly, international experiences in education too have shown a positive association between the status of teachers in a country and its overall performance in various indices in global development; human development index, global innovation index, happiness index etc. Countries such as Finland and Singapore have the best education systems in the world and they are also easily on the top of any chart related to individual happiness and well-being. Commentators such as Pasi Shalberg (Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?) and Fernando Reimers (Fifteen Letters on Education in Singapore: Reflections from a Visit to Singapore in 2015 by a Delegation of Educators from Massachusett) have argued that how teachers’ pay and status have been central to their transformation.

Para-teacher, ‘Social Choice’ and Imagining a society

In his book, ‘Democracy and Education (1916)’, published in 1916, American educator John Dewey argued that the way we organize our education reflect in the kind of society we want. For him, education was central to imagining a democratic society.

“But, until the public school system is organized in such a way that every teacher has some regular and representative way in which he or she can register judgment upon matters of educational importance, with the assurance that this judgment will somehow affect the school system, the assertion that the present system is not, from the intemal standpoint, democratic seems to be justified.” (Dewey, Democracy in Education, 64)

While Dewey’s education was concerned with building a democratic society guided by the liberal values, the appointment of contractual teachers represents an ideology which has privatization, deregulation, free trade, austerity and the limited role of the state as its core principles. ‘Accountability’ , ‘decentralization, ‘efficiency’ in neo-liberal discourse meanings where monetary concerns are given preference. In such a system, individuals are considered rational actors who know what is good for them. Framed in individual ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’, it leaves the individuals to the hands of market forces. The neoliberal discourse is seeped with the language of ‘achievement’, ‘excellence’, ‘discipline’ and ‘teachers’ are mere a tool to achieve higher ‘efficiency’ (how cost-effective) and ‘accountability’ (fiscal accountability). The neoliberal/conservative discourse operates through set categories, rigid hierarchies and predetermined roles. The neo-liberal discourse speaks through the invocation of morality in education, declaring what is ‘truth’ and what ‘good life’ really is. Under this arrangement, teachers have a determined role to play that is more of an ‘manager’ than ‘intellectual’.

“In the first instance, teachers are relegated to instrumental tasks that limit the possibilities for oppositional discourse and social practices. Pedagogy, in this case, is reduced to the implementation of taxonomies that subordinate knowledge to forms of methods-logical reification, while theories of teaching are increasingly technicized and standardized in the interest of efficiency and the management and controls of discrete forms of knowledge.” (Giroux, H. A. (1985). Teachers as Transformative Intellectuals. Social Education, 49(5), 376–79).

On the contrary, Indian Constitution imagines a society which ‘socialist, secular and democratic republic’. This imagination is very close to how Dewey had imagined a society which was based on democratic values. Various articles and sub-articles of the constitution provide tool to modify, challenge, or transform the dominant society. Any policy which has these as underlying principles would deny any kind of discrimination unless it has been done to correct the historical injustice meted out to marginalized groups or sections. In education, the work of Bowles and Gintis, Willis, Cornoy, Whitty, Apple and many others have conceptualized this alternative possibility where the discussion of counter-hegemony are considered central to the act of organizing a society. Teachers’ role too gets redefined under these principles and a progression happens towards the teachers becoming ‘organic intellectuals’.

“the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator…” (Gramsci, A., & Hoare, Q. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Vol. 294). London: Lawrence and Wishart.)

The tension between these two opposing ideologies gets reflected in the implementation of the policies. This is seen even in case of para-teachers. Policy documents, too, speak in contradictory terms. While the national policies on Education, National Curriculum Framework (NCFs), and various committees’ reports have talked about the importance of the teachers, it has hardly been reflected in the actual implementation of policies. Calculation based on cost-benefit and effectiveness gets preference here. Constitutional values and neoliberal policies remain in constant tussle, resulting in a confusing vision of the future.


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[1] Popular Hindi films of early post-Independence era, such as Sujata and Jagriti, portrayed education as central and teachers as important characters and agents of change in their plots.

[2] The Trouble with ‘Para-teachers’, retrieved on 28 July, 2018

[3] (i), (ii) (iii), retrieved on 28th July.

EdTech, Educational Data Sciences, Childhood Studies, History of Education & Policy Sociology, curate @central_ed , Currently @IIMAhmedabad