Learning Curve: Two Ways to Educate India
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
ar away from the cut and thrust of running large corporate houses, there’s something that’s keeping Azim Premji and Sunil Mittal, among the most successful entrepreneurs in India, busy. For the last almost 10 years, both have committed serious money, managers and their own time to providing quality education for India’s underprivileged children. They recognise that education has perhaps the greatest “multiplier effect”.
The government’s initiatives so far have been largely tied with the spread of compulsory education. The Rs. 90,000-crore Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and the mid day meal programmes have achieved a measure of success in bringing more children into schools. But it’s been a victory of quantity over quality. Even though 80 percent of children aged six to 14 attend government schools where education is free, they remain effectively uneducated and therefore unemployable. Absenteeism is high, as is the dropout rate and those who attend hardly benefit.
According to the Annual Status of Education Report, 2009, more than 30 percent of the children in class I do not recognise numbers and letters. Half of class V students meet reading standards of just class II.
It is this gap that Premji and Mittal hope to bridge through the work of their philanthropic organisations, the Azim Premji Foundation (APF) and the Bharti Foundation (Bharti).
APF believes the best way to make an impact is by working with the state education departments to improve learning in classrooms. The logic is simple: With 7 million education professionals (teachers and support staff) and an annual spending of $13.5 billion (Rs. 62,000 crore), the government has already achieved scale that no private organisation could equal.
Bharti has chosen to build a parallel system of new schools — Satya Bharti schools — to provide quality education for free to the rural poor and set new benchmarks on how to educate children. Of course, it does still need to engage with local governments as it relies heavily on partnership from the villages. Typically, the village gives the land free on long lease on which the school is built.
It is not that these two are the only organisations working to find solutions in this field. From Intel to IBM, Deutsche Bank to ICICI Bank, companies are doing some philanthropic work in the education space. Shriram Foundation works with 25 government schools in Haryana; Thermax runs a few civic schools in Pune.
But what sets APF and Bharti apart is their scale and ambition. “What we do should be reflected in permanent, institutionalised change. It should not be an island of excellence or a one off thing,” says S. Giridhar, head, programmes – APF.
APF is already present in nine states, while Bharti has 236 schools across India and plans to take that number to 550 schools with 2 lakh children.
How can civil society engage with the government to bring large-scale systemic change? There are important lessons to be learnt from both the models.
The APF Route
APF, started with a $125 million (about Rs. 575 crore) stock grant from Premji, was set up in 1999. To fulfil its agenda, it zeroed in on three things: One, train the teachers. A vibrant classroom would lead to better attendance and higher school completion rates. Two, build leadership skills among the education officers — they control the resources for government schools (incentives for teachers, mid day meal programmes, supply of text books and uniforms). Three, assess children for critical thinking, not rote learning, as this has a direct bearing on the way they will be taught.
This last was validated through one of its earliest programmes, the Learning Guarantee Programme (LGP) in Karnataka (2002-05). Its aim was to showcase government schools with best practices in teaching. Schools would volunteer for assessment and would be selected if their students (classes I-IV) qualified for a threshold level of enrolment, attendance and learning. In the first year, 40 schools (4.5 percent of the participating schools) met all the criteria. By the third year, the number had gone up to 144 (7.8 percent).
APF discovered that changing the way questions were framed in exams led to a change in the way children were taught. For example, if you ask ‘What is the highest 4 digit number?’ Every child can memorise the answer, 9,999. But if you ask ‘What is the highest four digit number you can create from 7, 2, 1 and 9’, the child will need to understanding the concept of unit, tens, hundreds. Schools that participated in this exercise every year showed marked improvement in learning achievements.
Today, the programme has spread to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttarakhand, and is onto the next stage of its assessment-led reforms. Instead of expanding to new areas, APF is working towards improving classroom interactions in schools where LGP has been rolled out. It is working closely with the education departments to train teachers and administrators. “It’s the large government system that is actually doing the work, we are merely facilitating or helping,” says Anurag Behar, who joins as co-CEO from July 1.