Anjuli Bhargava: Forcing Their Hand

Education Alliance is adopting a version of the charter schools approach to fix India’s failing government school system

If you can’t beat them, join them. That’s the motto 45-year-old CEO of Education Alliance (EA) Amitav Virmani appears to have adapted to fix the government school system in the country.

And yes, he’s not thinking one city or the other (although he has started with Delhi) but the entire country. Further, he eventually wants to push for legislation in India where the government agrees to fund non-profit organisations to come and run government schools.

Sounds madly ambitious? That’s because it is!

But it’s not as if Virmani, a Doon school and St Stephen’s alumnus - has pulled a brand new rabbit out of his hat. He’s extensively studied the charter school model adopted in the US and the academy model in the UK and he’s out to prove that the two models can work as well in India if given an equal chance. There are 7000 charter schools across 42 states in the US. The UK has around 3300 academies. In both the systems, the schools are owned by the government but run by private operators. The idea is to bring the management, accountability and flexibility of innovation offered by private operators to government schools with regulation and public funding.

After having worked for six years as the head of UK’s ARK – an international charity that attempts to transform lives through education - as its India's head, Virmani is firmly convinced that all tiny and large initiatives taken by individual NGOs and organisations will eventually come to nought since the government system lacks all accountability. His own experience in the NGO sector showed him that most initiatives – teacher training, leadership development, capacity building – make a temporary difference and then once the project is over, so is the reform. “Things simply revert to status quo the moment the project is over”, he says. He actually started programmes and then went back a year later to find no trace of them.

So the only real way ahead is to force the government’s hand and get it to improve what it offers at a national level. Poor quality on offer has led to a situation where over the last decade, government schools are losing enrolment at the rate of 2.5 per cent per annum and by 2030 they will be left with just 33 per cent of the students studying in government schools, according to Central Square Foundation (CSF). Of the existing 900,000 government schools in the country, over, 350,000 have 50 students or less even when the infrastructure can house 500. “50 kids in the school across 12 grades, one teacher – no teaching or learning is happening whatsoever”, says Virmani.

Getting his first project off the ground was a challenge as he ran into all the usual bureaucratic hassles one can expect. After two years or so of banging his head against the South Delhi municipal corporation (SDMC) walls, Satish Upadhyay, the then chairman of the BJP education committee agreed to give him one school to demonstrate his model. He said he couldn’t give him any money but he agreed to allow him to prove his contention at a government school in Lajpat Nagar.

Virmani brought in the NGO Ark and within three months, the school strength went up from 9 to 120 students. From fixing simple things like the height of sinks in bathrooms to allow small children to wash their own hands independently to introducing robotics classes to improve critical thinking, the NGO running the school brought in new teachers, thoughts and techniques to get the students to “engage” more – one of the primary reasons for high drop out rates across the country. Today the school has 400 students with 16 teachers and runs like any good private school.

Once the model was demonstrated and they were able to dispel the myth that “gareeb bache tho seekh hi nahi sakte”, government officials asked EA to take over 100 schools, a request Virmani flatly refused, arguing that growth has to be sensibly paced. Moreover, his ability to take over and run the schools is limited since the government is not offering any funds so far. EA has raised external funds to support its work.

With further support of a few enlightened government officials – Meeta Singh, IRS and additional commissioner of the SDMC and Puneet Goyal, IAS and commissioner of the SDMC in particular – Virmani took charge of 12 schools in 2016 and stretched it to 30 schools in 2017.

The results have been quick to come. Parents are queueing up for admission and enrolment in the schools has picked up, leading to an increase of 62% to 6100 students in 30 schools. Encouraging academic gains have been observed in the 12 schools that have completed one year of intervention. In students progressing from Grade 3 to Grade 4, the observed academic gains in English and Math score were an increase of 17 basis points and 9 basis points respectively, according to an external evaluation done by Gray Matters India. In comparison, the average annual academic growth observed in students (Government/APS) on this scale is typically 5 basis points.

“The change is marvellous to witness. We have been able to dispel the myth that poor students can’t learn. If taught well, they can learn and perform as well as any other”, adds Virmani, who is also on the board of CSF.

There are many possible hurdles in what Virmani is attempting. One, finding the right NGOs is a challenge in an environment where the term “NGO” has almost become a “bad” word. Two, government officials and teachers are likely to protest once they realize that they are losing their grip over the system and three, overcoming the mindset is the biggest issue - not at all states and politicians will be convinced that the private sector can do a better job despite evidence that their own system is failing.

Yet support for EA has poured in from all over. A large number of donors have come forward to finance EA (see chart) and the list of NGOs who are pitching in to run the schools is growing.

Bikkrama Daulet Singh, managing director of CSF and one of the funders of the EA says that for them the monitoring of progress that EA brings to the table was one of the deciding factors. EA constantly monitors the NGOs and in the second year itself, four NGOs who failed to deliver were removed from the cohort. “Being selective about the partners they are working with and being able to introduce their own teachers into the system - at least in Delhi – has allowed EA to show results”, he adds.

But Delhi is not India, small is beautiful and it’s early days as yet for EA. As of now, at a state level only Rajasthan has recently embarked on a pilot project to offer 300 government schools with a 25%-75% urban-rural mix through PPP model.

Can what Virmani is attempting to be replicated on a large scale across 28 states in India? Your guess is as good as ours.

Education Alliance Is Working With :
Learning links foundation
Study Hall Education Foundation
Simple Education Foundation
I am a Teacher
LEAD Schools

Education Alliance Is Funded By :
Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
Omidyar Network
Ark UK
British Asian Trust (BAT)
Amit Chandra
Sidharth Lal
Dhruv Choudhrie
Tech Mahindra Foundation
Children Investment Fund Foundation (UBS)

Some of the new Initiatives Started in government schools :
Music Vedic Mathematics for fast computation
Music Classes to improve on Literacy and Numeracy
Robotics  Classes to improve Critical Thinking and Scientific inquiry
Teacher and Student storytelling to boost listening, recalling, confidence
Group activities to improve peer learning
Contextual songs to improve correlation skills
Push for critical thinking through summarizing stories
Use of Concrete (Abacus, Beads), Pictorial, Abstract methods to teach numbers
Use of children currency to understand transactions in daily life
Value-based education through class and school values
Assigning class roles to understand responsibilities and to relate them
Jodo Gyan material to better understand mathematical concepts

- Anjuli Bhargava,

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