How a UK-based org is supporting low-budget private schools in India

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An endless debate rages in the education sector over whether school education ought to be run solely by the state or allowed to move into private hands. Though a host of individuals, experts and organisations strongly favour a state-run education system, the fact is that state schools all over the world, including India, have witnessed a steady outflow of children to the private school system.

“Parents are voting with their feet. The private education sector exists for a reason and we have to stop pretending that it doesn’t,” says Aashti Zaidi Hai, director of the UK-based Global Schools Forum (GSF), a first-of-its-kind body that works to support non-state schools and school networks in low and middle income countries, enabling them to deliver better quality education to children from low income families.

Hai, who has a Masters degree in international education policy from the US and has spent her career working in the education space in the US, the UK and India, says although she is a firm believer in the public school system, it is a bit like a giant steam liner in the ocean — even a small change in direction requires a mammoth effort. In the interim — while the ship tries to change direction — generations of students suffer.

She points out that over the last two decades, the percentage of students attending non-state primary schools in low income countries has doubled from 11 to 22 per cent. In South Asia, one-third of 6-18 year olds attend non-state schools. In Africa, the number is steadily climbing — from 21 per cent in 2013, it is expected to touch 25 per cent by 2021. “So whether we like it or not, private school education is here to stay,” she argues.

Indian GSF members
The problem is that though private schools are preferred by so many parents, in a country like India, the sector often functions in an almost hostile environment. Lacking the size, scale and heft of government-run education systems, operators in this space need to create their own enabling environment.

This is where GSF promises to lend a helping hand. The organisation, which was conceptualised in 2016, has emerged from a partnership of four international education-focused outfits — ARK International, Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, Omidyar Network and UBS Optimus fund. It started taking members 10 months ago and now has 35 members, primarily in Africa, Latin America and South Asia, with the largest cohort of eight members from India . 

As of now, the 35 members from 20 countries represent 12,000 non-state schools. For example, in Bangladesh, BRAC, an international NGO and a member of GSF, has a total of 1.8 million children studying under its schools network.

Over the last decade, several passionate entrepreneurs have come up with innovative schooling models that seek to deliver high-quality education at an affordable cost. Unfortunately, many of these pioneers are working as islands of excellence, and while there are many local associations and advocacy bodies, there is no single “go-to” global platform to objectively represent the opportunities and challenges faced by non-state schools.

“GSF has been set up to fill this gap,” says Hai. It hopes to do this by strengthening collaboration among members, generating better and more transparent data, building and sharing expertise and knowledge, and shaping and influencing global dialogue.

Amitav Virmani, CEO of Education Alliance, an organisation that works for the uplift of state schools in India, says that a body like GSF is greatly needed to encourage cross-border collaborations amongst like-minded educators. “The GSF cohort serves a similar demographic across borders. So there’s a lot to be learnt from each other’s experiences.” He says a recent GSF study tour in India has led to some interesting partnership opportunities. The outfit holds useful webinars that help operators use each other’s experiences to overcome similar hurdles, he adds.

According to Sumeet Mehta, co-founder and CEO of Lead Schools, which operates primarily in Maharashtra and is also a GSF member, forums like these help raise the collective vision of excellence of schools through the diffusion of best practices. He says during GSF’s recent India tour his schools received tremendous interest in their academic operating system. “At the same time, we learnt and raised the standard of our child protection and classroom behaviour management practices,” he says.  

Hai, meanwhile, is keen to see that children are not left swimming in choppy waters because state schools are too slow to change direction. The smaller private schools and networks that GSF focuses on are easier to steer and navigate and can reach its goal of providing quality education more swiftly.

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