24 Good Businesses 2012

Showing the way

Sikshana is helping children stay in school and better their performance by developing their all-round skills

Suma (14) lives in Appareddy Palya, a suburb in Bengaluru, and studies in Class VII at the local government primary school. Her father is a vegetable vendor and her mother stays at home. Being the most educated person in the family, she loves going to school and never forgets to wear her golden stars on her uniform every day. She competes with classmate Nagajyoti for those golden stars and neither miss going to school, lest they lose an opportunity to get more stars. Those stars don’t come easy, though.

Not only do you have to answer well in class, you have to be regular in both classwork and homework. Suma and Nagajyoti don’t mind the hard work — after all, you can trade in your stars for gifts whenever you like. Bharti, who teaches English in the school, couldn’t be happier. “There is a lot of change in the attitude of students; they just don’t want to miss school now. The star initiative has gotten students to learn faster because they all want to flaunt their stars on their uniform,” she says proudly. “It wasn’t like this before.” 

Things changed after Bengaluru-based Sikshana Foundation started working with the school in July 2011. Sikshana works with government primary and high schools to improve education standards and ensure reduced drop-outs. “Winning can become addictive: that is why people get hooked on to video games. It doesn’t matter what the prize is — you just want to beat the highest score. We applied the same reasoning in our schools and it has worked like a charm,” says VR Prasanna, CEO of Sikshana Foundation, who moved back from the US to India in 2007 to help scale up the organisation. 

And that he has. Sikshana currently works with 1,200 schools mainly in Karnataka but with a growing presence in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Sikshana believes that 85% of kids study in government schools and any effort to have a meaningful impact to improve the quality of education must begin here.

The organisation actually began as the brainchild of ES Ramamurthy who retired after heading Bhel in Bengaluru. “I always wanted to start something socially relevant and found there is a lot of work to be done in the field of primary education,” says Ramamurthy, the foundation’s chief mentor. “There are approximately 45,000 government schools in Karnataka and we needed a low-cost model that is also scalable.’’ It has managed to do that by keeping intervention costs at ₹400 per child per year as against ₹13,000-14,000 per year that the Karnataka government spends on a student. It has also validated the model by scaling its presence across 1,200 schools covering 150,000 students and hopes to add another 1,000 schools covering another 160,000 by January 2013.  

Currently, Sikshana gets funds from donors in the US and companies like Dell, iGate, Mindtree Foundation and GE, among others. While the foundation was started with ₹10 lakh in 2005, the budget for the current year is around₹7 crore. Sikshana is now in talks with the Karnataka government for a public-private partnership. 

 A+ for effort

The results were an outcome of interesting changes that Sikshana introduced in these schools. It discovered students in rural schools could read the textbook decently but beyond that, almost nothing. The problem was lack of reading material.  Sikshana did something very simple — it started buying newspapers. Every child has to read some portion of the newspaper during the morning assembly, and after that the papers are made available in the class for reading.

Another thing it did was to introduce classroom libraries where children could choose books themselves, abandoning the concept of common libraries that used to be mostly under lock and key. Now, since books are chosen by children themselves, they are much more interested in reading them. “I still remember what a little girl from a village school told me when she entered a bookstore for the first time: ‘I never knew there were so many books in the world. No wonder the teacher keeps asking us to study all the time’,” says Ramamurthy. The children also maintain a log of books they have read in their school diary, so the teacher can track their progress. 

Sikshana also discovered that kids were too slow in writing because many of them could not afford to buy notebooks. Although the government gave free notebooks, the supply was limited. So it came up with a solution — it started handing out A4 sheets on which children could practise writing, and they could exchange their written sheets for fresh sheets every week. “Now, children have access to unlimited supply of paper, and their writing speed has improved considerably,” says R Satish who teaches mathematics at Appareddy Palya primary school.

Sikshana also provided every school with one laptop with preloaded applications and a pen-drive for every child. The idea is not to teach them computing, but to help them get over the fear of technology. They can unleash their creativity by painting or using animation and, of course, save their masterpieces to flaunt it to whomever. “Often, the laptop acts as a pull for the parents to come and see what their children have done. Once they starting interacting with teachers and see how education benefits their children, they are less likely to pull them out of school,” says Prasanna.

With results visibly in its favour, Sikshana wants to take this model nationwide through a public-private partnership with the government funding ₹400 per child and Sikshana getting 14% of the intervention cost as management fee. Till that comes through, private donors are anyway happy to support its efforts to fix the public education system. “What we like about Sikshana is that they are transparent in their dealings, innovative in their method and they have built a scalable and sustainable model that not many NGOs have managed to,” says Lalitha Holla, manager at Mindtree Foundation, which has been working with Sikshana for the past three years. And for this, Suma wouldn’t mind giving Sikshana a gold star.