Transforming Education in India: The Journey has Begun!

At the outset, let me thank my readers for the encouragement and appreciation received for my first two articles. I am excited to see the interest of a lot of friends and peers in the Impact Investing space and the core idea to start my blog was in fact to demystify this space a bit and light that spark. Glad to see the efforts creating some change!

So I was travelling the past two weeks across South and North India to visit some of my portfolio companies. I was deliberating on what topic to write on this week when I decided why not share my on ground visit experience with two of our most promising portfolio companies in the education sector- Ignis Careers and Vikalp India.

I am sure most of us are already aware of the appalling state of education in India. While the gross enrollment ratio has steadily risen, the learning outcomes have been inversely proportional to it. Nearly 67% of children cannot do basic arithmetic while more than 75% of them are behind in at least one or more grade in math. 50% of the 5th class students cannot read a 2nd class English textbook as per a survey by ASER. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global study undertaken by OECD which measures 15 year old pupils’ performance on math, science and English, India’s rank stood 72/ 73rd in the last test taken in 2009. It has avoided taking it subsequently in 2012 and 2015 to avoid further public ignominy and global shame. In September 2017, World Bank also warned of a ‘learning crisis’ in global education and mentioned that schooling without learning was not just a wasted development opportunity, but also a great injustice to children and young people worldwide and is creating a moral and economic crisis.

Activity Based Learning: Changing the Way Students Learn

It is against this backdrop that both Ignis and Vikalp serve as a beacon of hope to allow millions of young children to be provided with essential learning and basic life skills which is not an entitlement but the most fundamental right for them and enable them to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Ignis Careers provides English and Life Skills training to students in low-cost private primary and middle income schools in India. The innovative model addresses key gaps in education mainly lack of quality teaching, rote-based method of learning and shortage of teachers in rural areas and small towns. What is remarkable is the fact that they are able to offer the programs for less than $1 per month per child which tackles the financial challenges for parents and schools. With a ‘whole language’ approach to English, children are taught to recognize words as essential blocks in a sentence, their meaning and relation to one another. Ignis also understands that teachers have been accustomed to decades of set method of teaching (with a greater emphasis on rote learning) and hence provides training to teachers and has its own rural fellowship programme with the support of HDFC to create ‘Ignis teachers’. Till December last year, they have already trained 7,000 teachers and taught 1.2 lakh children. Yourstory covered their journey which can be accessed here (

Vikalp India on the other hand provides an experiential math curriculum for K-5 students with an emphasis on low-income schools in India. It provides activity tools and kits for each level. Students first engage with the tools through activities for each topic, reflect and apply the concepts in workbooks and are then evaluated through continuous assessment which integrates the entire learning process. The proprietary curriculum based on decades of research syncs with modern educational practices and ensures that students visualize and grasp math concepts easily. Till date, they have reached out to 200 schools and taught 46,000 children across India.

It is inspiring and heartening to see the change being created by both the companies at the ground level. The feedback based on my interactions with principals, teachers, trainers, parents and students has been extremely positive and encouraging. Contrary to perceptions, I have met principals in affordable private schools who bear the cost of these programs due to the constrained capacity of the parents to pay for such additional interventions. One of the principal’s remarked that his focus is to spend on activities which improve the quality of education for students and enables them to become a better individual which is the sole purpose of an academic institute. All other things as marketing and brand awareness and the rush to produce ‘toppers’ is secondary.

With the intent to focus on the core segment which is students structural shifts are being created in related areas too. Training workshops are helping teachers in capacity building enhancing their ability to teach effectively, fellowship program is creating micro entrepreneurs while annual fairs and parent demonstrations by students is forging stronger community engagement. The impact is hence at a much deeper level impacting the local ecosystem where the school operates. The results of their efforts are also validated by the Lean Data studies undertaken by Acumen. 97% of parents surveyed replied that their children’s confidence levels and English skills have improved post Ignis intervention. And after 20 months of using Vikalp’s methodology students have shown upto 50% of improvement in their math scores.

While the efforts to bring about a seismic shift in parents and schools attitude from a rote-based marks focused education system to an activity based conceptual understanding system will be a long drawn out process, I feel that a slow but gradual change has started from Ignis, Vikalp and countless other similar startups who are tackling these challenges head on. Pushed by strong performance outcomes of children, positive teacher and parent feedback in such schools the utility of activity based learning will gain prominence and help create a multiplier effect.

The fact that I was able to have a very good English conversation with a lot of 5th grade students in Bannapuram and Khammam districts in Hyderabad or witness 2nd grade students responding with an almost 100% accuracy in an addition/ subtraction class in Govt. schools in Delhi was such a powerful and humbling process. Caught in the rat race amidst the rote based education system, it made me reflect on my time in the Indian schooling system and to be optimistic for the future of education in India and the chance for a new and better India.

Keshav is an Investment Associate at Acumen, an Impact Investment fund with 15 years experience in small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries.

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