In past decades, China lacked qualified teachers and it was not uncommon, especially in rural areas, for high school graduates, or even junior school graduates to be employed as substitute teachers. In the last few years however, the government has been trying to replace substitutes with qualified teachers and there have been complaints of harsh treatment of people who have devoted their lives to education.
Everyone acknowledges that substitute teachers have made a great contribution to basic education in rural China. In many areas harsh conditions and low pay meant college graduates were unwilling to take up posts. The more remote and poor the region, the more substitute teachers there were. In some areas they made up the majority of teachers. In many cases substitute teachers worked just as hard and were just as devoted to education as qualified teachers, but received much lower wages.
Substitute teacher Wang Zhengming teaches at Zhangjiabao Primary School in Gansu Province convoys his students home everyday.
But in 2001, the State Council decided to "dismiss people without teaching qualifications and gradually retire substitute teachers". In 2005 Zhang Xinsheng, vice minister of education, reaffirmed that China intended to gradually dismiss substitute teachers.
According to government figures the number of substitute teachers fell from some 1 million in 1997 to 448,000 in 2005. The remaining substitutes were mainly concentrated in rural primary schools.
The government's view is that although substitute teachers have a wealth of teaching experience, their teaching quality is uneven. This is partly because they have to cover all subjects and also because they often have to take second jobs to survive.
But Director of Beijing Normal University Education Research Center Pang Lijuan says the government should recognize the value of substitute teachers and the great contribution they have made to China's education system. She calls for improved pay and in-service training to bring substitute teachers up to the standard of qualified teachers.
In February 2008, Xie Zhimin, of the Ministry of Education Personnel Division, admitted, "The problem of substitute teachers is sensitive and complicated and the government is paying close attention to it."
Chinese local governments have been grappling with the issue for some time. In August, 2007, the Chongqing government converted 8000 substitute teachers to regular posts and increased their pay. In Yunnan Province, the government decided to dismiss substitute teacher under 30 years old, retrain those between the ages of 30 and 50, and resettle the over-50s. In developed Shenzhen, the government is trying to convert its substitute teachers to regular status by giving them the opportunity to take qualifying examinations.