Private school Education for poor in India is apparently under a crisis. While piecemeal reforms of public education have only repeatedly reinforced its inadequacies on access, enrollment, quality and retention parameters,  even private provisioning does not fair any better. With little or no differentiation, the value-addition of these private institutions to the economically backward is a glaring question mark.

Rationally speaking private schools will only mushroom in places where there is a sizeble catchment. Prior existence of a public school in a region is one market signal to an entrepreneur. So by design there would always remain areas, especially in far-flung tribal lands, where private schooling in the near vicinity will remain a distant possibility. As the numbers indicate, there are 9,50,000 government schools and an estimated 3,00,000 private schools in India (including the thousands of unrecognized private schools which are not recorded in any government registry).However 25% of our villages still have no access to public schools and only 28% of rural children have access to private schools in their own villages.

The quality aspects of private schools have not been as much scrutinized as that of public schools. It is largely been relegated to the market forces in which illiterate and ignorant customer can only make a price-quality inference. A recent survey from a prominent NGO shows that teacher attendance, teaching activity and student attendance, is far superior in private school vis-a-vis a public school, but  the effectiveness of private schools in imparting reading ability to the poorer strata is not significantly better than that of public schools.  It is unemployed youth from the local community, with mostly just secondary education, who join such schools as they cannot find an alternative employment and are unwilling to resort to agriculture.  Drawing a mere 1/5th of the salary of their counterparts in public schools, they are only motivated to take teaching as a short-term career. With the school management making no provision for better equipping teachers through periodic trainings, private schools tend to be worse than some "good" government schools.

It is futile to even discuss about, let alone formally assess, "value education" provided by private schools. Functioning at a subsistence level, entrepreneur has hardly any incentive to innovate. Instead, private schools tend to focus on mechanized education that is commissioned to churn out students who possibly can only fare better on "achievement" tests. Driven mainly by commercial motives, with few exceptions, these private institutions are run to benefit the "servers", rather than the "served".  This brings to question the purpose these privatized industrialized disseminators of information and instruction serve as compared to public schools. All they probably do best is mass produce seemingly intellectually worthwhile, but esthetically equally barren individuals.

If such is the sad state of fee-charging private provisioning of education then what is the role of private sector? What good can "voucher system" be in a world of Hobson's choice? Do we entrust the responsibility on the market to eventually rational out in the long term?  Is it not far too simplistic to believe that increased competition will eventually create exemplar institutions of educational delivery? If private education as a "substitute" of public education is farse mimicry, is it best designed as a "supplementary" channel?


"Consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife"

This Ogilvy's quote made little sense until a couple of days back when I got the first glimpse of how the superficially similar consumer exhibited a varying gradation of behavior to the same basket of services. It was in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where we were attempting to figure out why a prudently launched educational service of a company, which has had considerable  experience in "dealing" with the rural consumer, had evidently failed to take-off.   

In the three of the villages where the services was piloted it was quite shocking to see one that showed no success whatsoever, other that had some signs of partial success and the last one that had a commendable success story which unfortunately failed to sustain the momentum. Even considerable field analysis has not thrown much light on why the educational service package, which was targeted to improve the learning outcomes of primary school children, has failed to triumph. 

There are many questions that still remain unanswered. What explains the gradation of responses from villages which are not farther than a half-hour distance from each other? Was the service which was priced at a minuscule one rupee a day, not affordable to the consumer?  Was there a lack of monetizable value proposition to children or parents? Was the provider, who is ironically known for its undisputed expertise in servicing the rural, not meeting the expectations? Did the company, who knows the game of promotion better than anyone else in the industry, fail in its task of marketing the services? While some might argue that when services provided for free are per se not received well, it is irrational for an entity such as this to expect favorable responses when the same services are charged for. Does the rural consumer mind like that of a "smart" urban consumer correlate price with quality and value? If so then shouldn't an entity charge premium to help the blindfolded rural consumer realize the potential benefits of such services? 

For now, it looks like this rural consumer is much like a wife who I will probably get to know in a few months time!

~ Santosh


"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works."
- This fictional character Gordon Gekko's address to stockholders in the famous movie Wall Street , still seems to find a good cheering audience, both among the business and the elected representative body, in India. The latest in this avarice seems to be the $1.5 billion Biscuit industry's desperate attempt to double its market share by its brow-raising offer to supply biscuits through government's Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). The industry along with the MPs, who they have evidently have pocketed, are lobbying for serving biscuits instead of the traditional cooked meals under MDMS.

According to these self-proclaimed experts, not only in  the field of nutrition but also in the multifaceted socio-economic development, biscuits are the best meals for the 120 million growing children across the country who are covered under MDMS. It escapes my comprehension as to how company's like ITC, Parle and Britannia are backing baseless statements of MPs that biscuits are a favorite snack of children and that they have a higher recall and acceptance among the intended beneficiaries of the MDMS. How can one, based just on the grounds of couple of corruption cases and reported poor quality of meals, stretch to make claims that cooked meals should be replaced by packaged biscuits? The least one expected from the industry was to lend its mind-space in efficiently managing supply chain and delivery channels. Instead all one can see is the potential atrocity when "greed" and "corruption" join hands. 

It seems that the lobbyists need a primer not only on nutrition but also on the multipurpose objectives of MDMS. As per the Supreme Court order, all states are mandated to provide every child in Government/Government-assisted primary schools with a "prepared meal" instead of "dry rations". The revised norms of NP-NSPE even specify the minimum content of 450 calories, 12 gm of Protein, with adequate quantities of micro-nutrients such as Iron, Folic acid, Vitamin-A, etc.

However, today's most ubiquitous Parle-G Glucose biscuits claim to provide just about 300 calories and protein of less than 5 gm in serving size of 11 biscuits. So, how many biscuits is a child expected to munch in a day and of course without the usual accomplice of a cup of tea or coffee? Is the industry claiming that it would come with a perfect recipe with all the essential nutritional ingredients in magical proportions all within the current average conversion cost of Rs 1.17? Is the industry setting new paradigms for CSR by sacrificing its usual margins? Even if we were to accept the unusual benign nature of the industry, can a biscuit be any distant substitute to a hot cooked meal which can offer the variety to sustain the interest of children?

Today it is the biscuit industry and tomorrow it could well be the packaged food and even confectionery industries vying for the lucrative piece of this Government initiative. Before one tends towards the industry side based on common charges of corruption and health hazards as a result of food not being cooked in hygienic conditions which might be partially true, one needs to carefully consider the sheer impact of cooked meals on aspects such as child nutrition, school attendance and social equity. Firstly, in deprived areas where the child does not even get two square meals a day, these cooked meals are enjoyed as a "festival food".  In areas where hunger is endemic, will one value the assurance of cookies? Secondly,  the socialization value that MDMS brings as children sit together and share a common meal would seem to get eroded if one is given a pack of biscuits instead. (Hope that one is not attempting to to create a "High Tea" gathering here!) Thirdly, the employment opportunities created for the poor women in particular has no place if cookies are to replace cooked meals. (For a detailed analysis read here)

Now on the "corruption" argument front, I wonder how packaged snacks is any less vulnerable. What is needed to minimize corruption in MCDS is an overhaul of our monitory system. The need of the hour is development of appropriate technologies and operational models that will improve the administration of MDMS. Is it too much to expect the industry to partner with the state at operational or management level to ensure delivery of warm healthy meals to vulnerable children without incurring high cost? Who is to defend the right to food of vulnerable groups when MPs decide to leave them in the hands of corporations whose sole objective seems profits?

Thanks to SC-appointed commissioners who have just today slammed the suggestion by MPs' group. Well, now it remains to see if someone will wake up the industry's "conscience"!

~ Santosh 


Today if one talks of a government school and latest fancy gadgets in the same breath, s/he is best greeted with a scoff, for when one thinks of a typical state-run school, especially in a shanty town or a remote village, s/he does not fail to see the vivid picture of a compound wall shorn of paint, with pigs, dogs and cattle whining their way amidst the scattered garbage to the classrooms, while a bunch of barefoot children squat and slog on the floor, with their bony ankles painfully rubbing against the coarse floor, and pretend to be attentive amidst crumbling buildings with impalpable roofs, windows and blackboards. So who is to blame if  "cutting-edge-technology"  in schools that even lack basic amenities seems satirical so say the least?

While the deplorable state of state-run schools is not to change in the foreseeable future, one must be warned that a hi-tech gadget attached to the school buildings is not a pipe dream. Could you have imagined that under a pilot initiative 680 primary schools in Gujarat and 400 schools in Punjab are today equipped with fingerprint biometric systems for registering attendance? While Gujarat plans to scale it up to 40,000 schools, Rajasthan is floating tenders for the biometrics. At the outset this may seem either nonsensical or a potential massive scam. One might ponder as to what on earth prompted such a move when the best of the private schools in the country don't have such latest systems and still rely on age-old attendance being marked in a registry. But hold on, for this seems to be no short of a well thought out plan to deal with the vexatious school students and teachers.

The potential of a machine that can read finger impressions for not only monitoring but managing school and teacher data seems to have been finally realized. The need for monitoring enrollment, retention and dropout data at school level cannot be emphasized enough in the context of universalization of primary education. Even the seemingly small aberrations in these indicators at a school level has serious repercussions at the national aggregate level given the mandate to meet the MDG goals. So, the pressure at a school administration level to maintain a close to average academic credentials is reasonable. But more often than not this burden and worry obligates one to resort to unwelcome practices. 

Recently, a news daily reported instances of school administration fudging attendance registries to cover up falling attendance rate. When the school knows that the statistics, such as enrollment and attendance rates, have implications on the amount of resources allocated - whether money, infrastructure, teachers or mid-day meals - the administrators crumbling under pressure resort to fudging a few numbers to maximize the share. This cannot be dismissed as a one-off situation. 

Worrying trends show that teachers in state-run schools allow children to come to schools only at meal time, after which they are let off from attending classes, just to show higher authorities that they are handling big classes. While there are cases where the same child appears as a student in more than one school and sometimes in more than in one class in the same school, there are also reported cases where the poor battles with bureaucracy seeking a certificate of non-attendance just so that the child can seek admission to a Bridge Course camp. In fact, it has been found that names of girls who have attained puberty, are found neither in attendance registers nor on the out-of-school children list.

In the wake of such citing, one wonders whether the resources allocated to schools, especially for mid-deal meal schemes, are misappropriated. A rough, back of the envelope calculation gives a glimpse of the potential quantum of misappropriation. Today the estimated expenditure on mid-deal meal scheme, which includes the conversion cost, is Rs. 3 per child per day. So, for the estimated 150 million children enrolled in government primary and secondary schools across the country, even if just 1% attendance is distorted, then over 200 days, the misappropriation would aggregate to a whooping Rs. 90 crores annually!

There is no question that such falsifying of data at school level is a gross violation that has serious consequences at the national level. The absolutely necessity to create structures and processes that encourage the teachers and ensure the school administrators to give correct information cannot be emphasized enough. But, the question is whether hi-tech solutions such as the proposed "Fingerprint Biometric School Attendance System" the holy-grail?

~ Santosh


Sometimes certain images linger in your minds even long after they  have beamed in your eyes. I'm not referring to those typical snapshots-in-time images, but those prudent camouflages of harsh truths that seem to have been lost somewhere in eternity. Seizing such moments, which convey much more than what is portrayed, and which evoke emotions and kindles many a thoughts, takes much more than mere talent.; it calls upon a rare combination of passion, creativity and relentless pursuit. To render such a perfect recipe in the very first attempt deserves nothing short of a standing ovation.

Well, kudos to Aamir Khan on his commendable effort for conveying a thought-provoking message and creating awareness on Dyslexia through his directorial debut "Taare Zameen Par"! Last such widely acclaimed movie which portrayed such similar powerful message was in my opinion "Philadelphia" released in 1993, almost more than a decade into the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While there has not been any dearth of movies with a social message, it is only of late that such serious and somber movies as the Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" have shown scattered proofs of movies' capability of inciting some sensitivity, if not a lasting social change, in a subtle and subterranean way. It is not easy to pick on a artsy movie with a message subject such as the side-tracked Dyslexia and weave it into a simple yet a powerful narrative.

Though an estimated 30 million children, which is about 10% of children in regular classroom, are known to be Dyslexic in India, not many are aware, let alone be sensitive, to this learning and attention disorder. What is worse and painful is the shunning of these Dyslexics as mentally disabled - leading the child to feel dumb and isolated. Who could possible imagine that - Einstein, EdisonDa Vinci - who were once pushed-aside, ridiculed and stigmatized in childhood, would become rare creative geniuses to shape the world through their contributions!

A recent study that traces business acumen to Dyslexia, claims that Dyslexics make for fine entrepreneurs as they were more likely than "normal" counterparts to delegate authority, to excel in oral communication and problem solving, and were twice as likely to own two or more businesses. Charles Schwab of the Investment and Financial Management Service by same name and John Chambers of Cisco are a few of many such successful top notch businessmen. Richard Branson, one of the all-time finest businessmen, once admitted in an interview "I had the worst school report ever. They thought I was a hopeless case because I'm dyslexic, although no-one had heard of it in those days. I was always bottom of the class and I left school at 15...".

Well, in a high-pressure society such as India, where scoring A grades and being in the 95+ percentile count for so much, Dyslexia still carries a heavy penalty. One wonders how our educational system would have possibly graded the likes of Einsteins based on its "long-established" assessment methodology! I hope the movie, which couldn't have been better timed and contextualized, is an eye-opener to all those parents who think that the hurdles are insurmountable.

~ Santosh





I wasn't expecting a grandeur and spic-n-span office premises when I was asked to attend "ICT Partners Meet" at Shiksha Sankul in the pink city of Jaipur. Neither was I expecting a state-of-the art conference room with a neat welcome kit - session details, handouts of all the presentations, stationery items and bottled water - on each participant's table. As though the shock wasn't enough, I was left embarrassed when I conveniently entered the meeting room fifteen minutes late assuming that with government officials involved, the meeting couldn't possibly start earlier than half-hour past the scheduled time.

With Shubra Singh's (State Projects Commissioner, Rajasthan)  welcome note, the stage was set perfect for the quarterly Rajasthan Education Initative's  (REI) partners meet. I was blown away by the bureaucrat's impressive mannerism and her near-perfect articulation of the expectations from the meeting. With representatives from the corporate world - CII, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco and IBM - and development organizations such as World Economic Forum, GeSCI and UNICEF, I presumed the stage couldn't have been set more perfect for a landmark public-private partnership. It was only in the meeting that I realized that the REI is one the among only three public-private partnership in education across the world, the other two being education initiatives in Jordan and Egypt.

However as the discussion progressed, the ground realities of this project unearthed. It is disquieting to know that though this initiative has been in existence for two years, there is still no dedicated project management unit to overlook the initiative. Even though this initiative boasts of high-profile core partners such as WEF, GeSCI and CII, it is incomprehensible that it was only in this meeting that it dawned upon everyone that drawing a road map for the initiative would make sense. I wonder whether this is the kind of professional maturity that such organizations bring elsewhere too. I wonder how learnings from Jordan and Egypt's initiatives seemed a far-fetched idea to the core partners.

The co-partners, which incidentally includes HiWEL, seemed to be keen in advancing ones own agenda and were primarily concerned about raising issues of how government inadequacies and bureaucratic processes were delaying ones projects. Many, including me, who were attending this kind of meeting for the first time, didn't know the proceedings of any of the previous meetings. To ones wonderment, none of the private players were aware of any of the others' initiatives. There were only a few ad hoc suggestions made in the air for exploring possible synergies. What was glaring was that there was an evident discord between the co-partner's core competencies and the projects they had taken up as part of their CSR activities. I fail to appreciate why Cisco was involved in PC maintenance training, while Intel and Microsoft were  conducting teacher trainings.  

It was incognizable as to how this initiative could remotely be called a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP). There was neither a perceivable professionalism in strategic planning nor any operational efficiencies that the private partners brought to the table. Though there was no dearth of earnest concerns about  the pathetic educational scenario of the state, all of the players seem to suggest the same old traditional philanthropic route to reforms. The government on the other hand, let alone make an attempt to benchmark itself against other states, was not even cognizant of best practices from other states. Even after two years of existence, it does not seem to realize that it is indeed reinventing the wheels.

There is no doubt that the enormity and complexity of the education in the country demands much more than a sheer lip service from private players. Nobel Laurette Amartya Sen recently called for synergy between industry and teaching community (Read more here). However, until the time public's concern and private player's competency match and converge, such initiatives can be best relegated as another one of those Poor-Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPP).

~ Santosh


"This is the true joy in life - the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one." - George Bernard Shaw

Of late the print media seem to cover quite a few columns on entrepreneurship. Yesterday's ET has two big columns on this subject - one showcasing three entrepreneurs who dared to not follow the typical B-school crowd mentality, and the other attempting to explore a seemingly ridiculous question on whether one can be taught to become an entrepreneur. This debate cannot be dismissed as a purely academic one for if entrepreneurship can be learnt as a discipline, then it is bound to change the whole paradigm of business.

Today, there is enough literature that identifies typical attributes of an entrepreneur. In fact there are psychometric tests, such as Entrepreneurial Attributes Scale, that could be used to identify whether one has successful entrepreneurial attributes -  high level of drive and energy, self confidence, calculated-risk taking ability, readiness to learn from ones own mistakes and ability to visualize way-ahead. Now the question is whether these attributes can be imbibed in. Or can we categorically say that someone is born with these traits? If these attributes can be taught as a formulas, then is a B-School the right place? Is it not too late to learn these attributes, most of which are soft skills?

On one end of the spectrum, plethora of theories and evidences have been put forth that essentially says that it is absurd to expect to learn being an entrepreneur. However, in citing world's most successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and Indian success stories of Ambani or Dabbawalas, the argument falls into the trap of "Fallacy of biased sample" or what in psychology is termed as a "Confirmation bias".

The most repulsive argument comes when one cites numerous entrepreneurs who have emerged in the developing countries owing to the availability of capital through micro-credit. This calls for a more comprehensive review of two kinds of entrepreneurship - "Necessity based" and "Opportunity based". Are the self-employed bunch essentially entrepreneurs? If so, are the millions of Indians, unlike in the west, born entrepreneurs and hence don't need to be taught the same in a school setting?

Well, while much needs to be researched on teaching this discipline at MBA level, it might be worth noting that occasionally even best of the B-schools might falter and produce people of the George W Bush's (Harvard'75) caliber! Do we draw any conclusions from the Fortune magazine's 1999 article on "Why CEOs fail?" that states that 40% of failed CEOs were MBAs?

For now, time shall speak if like in Science, someday we have Newton's laws of entrepreneurship. Can schools impart confidence if not competence for budding entrepreneurs?

~ Santosh


While on one hand the news of executives of Indian origin - Citi's Pandit, Pepsi's Indra Nooyi, Vodafones' Arun Sarin to name a few - reigning on top of the business world behemoths, says something of our Indian education system, the ghastly news, of perhaps the first incident of its kind in the country, which brought to light a high school student being shot  by his unrepentant classmates, probably speaks otherwise. While this post offers no knee-jerk reaction to the latter, it makes an attempt to bring forth the dual side of Indian higher education system's achievements vis-a-vis that of from other parts of the world.

The feats of Indian engineers and business professionals abroad speaks enough of our highly acclaimed higher education system. On a lighter note, it is interesting to note that our IIT engineers have made appearances in the Dilbert cartoons. However, when these feats are put on a wider spectrum, irreconcilable diverse points of view come to light. As soon as one ferrets through some of the statistics of post graduates from our colleges and universities, moribund nature of our quality of research and value system emphasis becomes evident.  

On the numbers front, India's production of 2.5 million graduates each year, trails behind only US and China. On the quality front its a mixed bag with skewed statistics. While IITs, IIMs and ISB have become truly global brands, the quality of many other 300 universities and more than 15000 colleges is questionable to mention the least. What needs pondering is whether the quality of our research, the breadth of our innovations, the number and frequency of entrepreneurial incubations, and the depth of our faculty reached anywhere close to that of Harvard, MIT or Stanford?

If one takes management education itself, with 1400 B-schools in India, we produce almost seven times the number of B-school graduates in UK. If one were to measure the quality of our management education in terms of return on investment and number of graduates managing to get glamorous jobs with top investment banks and consulting firms, then we can definitely pat our back. But if this was the only yard stick then we would have long back been on the much coveted B-school rankings. Sadly for  our Indian B-schools, the rankings take a holistic view of the school and their management professionals.

While we still fight to find a remote mention in these rankings, I wonder whether today's "supposedly" creme de la creme graduates from IIMs and ISB are well equipped with social , environmental and economic perspectives which are required for business success in a competitive and fast changing world.

We have the numbers; We have the talents; Do we have the motivation? (More of Indian B-schools and their social & environmental stewardship in coming posts) 

~ Santosh


Any guesses on what India, Pakistan and Nigeria have in common. Well, I know it's hard to guess. The answer - these are the only 3 nations having a sad 6+ million out-of-school children. UNESCO has just released a comprehensive mid-term assessment of where the world stands with respect to basic education.  

As per the report, when it comes to adult literacy, India alone accounts for 35% of world's illiterates and is one of the 25 slowest performers. It is regarded to be at serious risk of not achieving the target by 2015. On the gender disparity front, we are far from bridging the gap especially in the secondary education. One report shows that more than half the illustrations in the average primary school textbooks depict only males, and only 6% show just females. On the other hand, teacher absenteeism goes above 50% in some states.

While there are a few positive indicators that India can brag about, on the sum, the country has slipped from a rank of 100 to 105 in its fight against illiteracy. Given this scenario, the inevitable suggestion that comes from many is for the government to pump in more money and improve the delivery mechansim. However, the question remains will this suffice. Today's Times of India editorial opines that the need of the hour is to provide education an industry status and allow private investment, even FDI to get in. Simply put, schools should be allowed to make profits.

While Professor James Tooley claims in his findings that private education is the right horse to back, some of the fundamental questions still remain unanswered in my mind - Is it realistic to expect a private school to remain self-sustainable and provide quality education in the remotest of the villages? Is an aided private school the panacea to the problem of sustainability? What are the probable implications of industrializing education?

~ Santosh

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