Creating a chain of privately-run non-formal rural schools

Srijan Foundation’s non-profit school programme

For 3-4 years starting 2005 we had run 2 rural schools in Odisha. The first one started at the behest of the domestic help in my mother’s home (a family member to us now), Puran Chand Swain, who was appalled by the state of the government schools in his village during a visit back then, and suggested that we start a school for the village kids in his village.

Through Srijan Foundation Trust we were already running a non-formal school since 2001 from Vasant Kunj for kids of families from lower-economic backgrounds in the Vasant Kunj area of New Delhi, in which Puran had been studying as well. This was run and led by Col. Ramakrishna (retd) with support from a few motivated retired government professionals and teachers in our neighbourhood.

In Odisha, we had started in Nadakhand village and later in Kumarpada village — both in Puri district, about 1.5 hours drive from Bhubaneshwar Airport. We shut down these schools after 3-4 years, as in one, the set of teachers were using this not to teach but as a source of income.

The other in Kumarpada was running brilliantly by a girl called Pratima Swain. She taught about 100 kids daily in 3 batches. We shut down because Pratima got married and moved to a city in Odisha.

Primary Education Revolution in India

Recently, i’ve been reading “The Indian Renaissance : India’s Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline” by Sanjeev Sanyal. Some very interesting excerpts from the chapter here:

Between 1990 and 2003, the primary school enrollment rate went up from 80% to almost 100% of the relevant age group. Even socially backward states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are now registering gross primary enrollment rates of over 90%. The shift is even more dramatic for girls where the proportion has jumped from 64% to 96% during this 12 year period. It is also significant that 63% of the students stayed on till middle school in 2003 compared to barely 42% in 1990.

What has caused this change? The cumulative impact of years of effort by the government (under the Sarva Shikha Abhiyan), NGOs, religious charities and dedicated individuals has been an important factor that has engineered this change.

What has really tipped the balance in recent years has been the growth of fee-charging rural schools by private parties (sometimes in conjunction with NGOs and religious oganizations, but often purely as private commercial ventures).

Small numbers of privately run schools have long existed in rural India but their numbers have grown explosively since the late nineties. They are usually quite modest affairs — charging less than Rs.80 per month (about $2) and have less than a hundred students each. However, they sprung up across rural India on private initiatives of thousands of small local entrepreneurs (not dissimilar to what we saw in the cable television industry). James Tooley and Pauline Dixon were amongst the first to highlight this phenomenon, and their findings have been confirmed by subsequent studies.

KISS — A schooling initiative in Bhubaneswar doesn’t leave it to government, seeks to be the change agent

Then serendipitously i read about Bibek Debroy’s article in Indian Express on KISS and KIIT rural schools in Odisha.

KISS was started in 1993 with 125 tribal students and some financial support from the ministry of tribal affairs.

Today, there are 25,000 tribal students, from 62 poor tribal communities (13 primitive tribal groups). Most, though not all, are from Odisha. For these students, who are poor and first-generation learners, education is free, from kindergarten to postgraduation. Since schooling is residential, board, lodging and healthcare are also free. Compared to many schools, private as well as public, the KISS track record is rather good — gender ratio, retention rates, pass percentages, integration of vocational education, sports and extra-curricular activities. More specifically, the school has 19,057 students — 9,044 girls and 10,013 boys. The college has 5,994 students — 3,204 girls and 2,790 boys. As news about KISS spread in the deprived and disadvantaged catchment area (Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh), there has been demand for enrolment in it. I was told there are around 50,000 applicants, even after filtering for poverty.

Since there are no doles and handouts from outside, the KISS model works only if there is internal cross-subsidisation. And that happens to be with KIIT, which was set up in 1992 with Rs 5,000 in funding. But that expansion of the acronym — Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology — is in the past. Since 2004, KIIT has been a university, having taken the deemed university route. KIIT University now has 11 different schools, spread over 400 acres and with 20,000 students.


Four Pursuits’ Venture in Rural Schools

These two insights have led me to believe that we must not run our non-formal schools (via Srijan Foundation Trust), which we want to re-start in Odisha as a social / non-profit initiative. What if we could start this as a private initiative? That would enable us to scale up.

This reminds me of a TED Talk by Michael Porter where he talks on “Why business can be good at solving social problems“.

So, here’s a commitment to start a chain of branded rural schools in India, largely focussed on Primary Education teaching English, Maths (in English) and a local language of the region (Odiya, Hindi, etc).

Inviting entrepreneurs from all around the country who wish to start their own small private schools branded by as a venture by Four Pursuits, to:

  1. get incubated
  2. get institutional training & support
  3. get better price from children’s families for increased self-sustainability of the school

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