By Amruth Chinnappa
Education sets an individual free. It is heartening to see private establishments like Peepul Foundation working together with Delhi’s government schools to bring world-class education to their students. In an interview with Qrius, Ms Kruti Bharucha, the CEO of Peepul, talks about the foundation and its goals. She has worked in premier institutions like The World Bank, McKinsey & Co. and CEB Inc., following which she became the Country Director for Ark India, to heed her passion for ensuring quality education to children everywhere.
Can you let us know what prompted the shift from working as a Senior Director at CEB to being involved in the education sector?
I can remember being asked at the age of ten what I wanted to be when I grew up. Being a child of two economists, the expected answer was likely a professional degree. However, I wanted to reduce the inequality I saw in India and thought that building schools for the children that didn’t receive a chance to go to school was one way to solve that problem.
2013 was a decision point for me. I was in the running to become a Managing Director at CEB but paused to really ask myself what I wanted to do in my career and professional life. The development sector kept pulling me back and I knew that my answer would be the same as what I would have said when I was ten years old.
For me, there was no time like the present and moving to the sector when I was in the prime of my career could really make a difference. Life has a way of bringing opportunities to you when you really want something and so, in 2014, I was appointed Country Director for Ark India.
What is Peepul’s motto, and the driving force behind it?
Our motto is to transform children’s lives through quality education. We want every child to realise their true potential irrespective of their background.
The issue is no more just getting children into school, it is making sure they have a high-quality education. 70% of the poorest children in India, most of whom rely on government schools, leave primary school without even basic reading or writing skills. Although government schools had good infrastructure, large classrooms and an adequate area for playing, parents were increasingly dissatisfied with the poor accountability structures and falling standards of education delivered in these schools. As a result, teachers feel disempowered, students feel apathetic, and parents feel frustrated.
Our work aims to be disruptive and address these low literacy levels by creating exemplary partnership schools within the government system, which will raise the expectations and revitalise the quality of public education in India.
What void in the present education system do you intend to fill with Peepul?
Our vision is to create a high-performing school network which will raise expectations and education standards. Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu showed the country what excellence means for their sport by performing at the highest levels and winning medals at the Olympics. They raised the bar and generated enthusiasm and interest for badminton in India. Parents now send their children to badminton academies with the hope of them becoming the next PV Sindhu. We want our schools to be centres of excellence that raise the bar for quality education in India.
What makes us different is that we are continuously learning and listening to feedback, course correcting and strengthening our programmes where we can to have a greater impact on learning outcomes.
How is the programme conducted? Tell us about CEDE: Child Education, Development and Empowerment, which is the focal point of your training.
Our education model is based on a rigorous approach to teaching and learning.
Our teachers are recruited from top colleges through an extremely rigorous selection process. They receive extensive training in practical, effective techniques for teaching young children the basics of language, reading, writing and mathematical concepts such as number, size and shape. Our focus is on mastery of Mathematics, English and Hindi. We have developed a strong curriculum, using the best international practices and guidance from reputed Indian experts.
We make sure we work with every child and develop individual learning plans for them. Colourful and interesting teaching-learning materials are used to ensure children are engaged. Rather than rote learning, which is the common practice, we give our pupils opportunities to learn through creative and social activities, which builds their confidence and imagination. We teach them how to behave, to respect each other and their teacher.
Our training for teachers focuses heavily on classroom management techniques and lesson planning. Regular classroom observations and feedback from the school leadership team provide teachers with a view to their strengths and how they can continuously develop.
Are students the sole beneficiaries? How do you select your students?
Our students are our primary but not the sole beneficiaries. Our school is non-selective, which means we do not restrict ourselves or select the students that we admit to the school. We admit all those in need of a good quality education.
The parents and families of these children are our second level beneficiaries. They are set to benefit in the future because their children can access a quality education at present, which will prepare them for life, allowing them to have a career of their choice and as a result help their families out of the circle of poverty. Our families come from communities located between 2 – 4.5 km from our schools. Our children’s average family income is between Rs. 5,000 – 6,000 per month, though many survive on less than this. Most of our children are Hindi speaking, although we also have some with Tamil, Nepali, Bengali and Punjabi as their mother tongue.
Many public personalities like HRH Prince Charles and Najeeb Jung—Lieutenant Gov. of Delhi—have paid a visit to your institutions. How is the global and governmental outlook on the Indian education system with and without PPP: Public-Private Partnerships?
Yes, our schools have received recognition from several of our visitors. Just recently, Anil Swarup, Secretary, MHRD, who visited our school spoke to us about developing a prototype to be able to replicate our model.
PPPs need to be considered in India as a model for equalising educational opportunity to the economically and socially deprived segments of society. The current momentum around PPP in school education is a very positive development.
A larger discussion and introduction of various players into the PPP discourse is now required to explore how the government can create a sustainable ecosystem for players like Peepul to scale their work, what the necessary features of a stable and effective regulatory system are and the need for a dependable monitoring mechanism based on transparency and mutual trust is critical.
What hurdles unique to India did you face while implementing your programme? Let us know your thoughts on the widespread preference of literacy over education in schools, where marks are seen as a benchmark of success, rather than knowledge.
When we began our schools, the learning levels of the children were very low. The children we serve have not had access to toys, learning materials or books, all crucial for cognitive development. Most being first-generation learners, had never been read to and their vocabulary levels were much lower in comparison to children from affluent backgrounds. Few had any understanding of expected classroom behaviour.
Now, we have developed strong school routines. Students know how to listen to instructions, pay attention, participate, work with their peers, and are truly getting the most out of the school day. The emphasis on good hygiene, regular health check-ups and the provision of an additional meal at our flagship school have significantly improved the health of many children.
Being used to rote learning as the only method of teaching and notebooks being filled as a matter of course, many parents worried that their child was spending their time at school simply playing. However, they now understand that the activities being done in school are leading to their children learning faster than they could by rote methods.
What changes have you observed as a result of Peepuls intervention in this field and what do you wish to see in India’s schools by 2027?
Our students have made great progress, both academically and in terms of their behaviour. Our year-end assessments showed significant student growth, 76% of all students either met or exceeded grade-level expectations across all 3 subjects—English, Hindi and Mathematics. Strong classroom routines and behaviour trackers help us maintain a high standard of discipline among our students.
Based on our proof of concept, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) extended the programme under the name of School Quality Enhancement Programme (SQEP) in 2016. There are now 30 SDMC schools partnered with NGOs. All the partner organizations, including Peepul schools, are working in partnership to increase enrolment and the quality of education in these schools. Key performance indicators and school-specific targets for enrolment, teacher and student attendance, student retention and student academic achievement are being tracked to ensure that there is a focus on quality.
What challenges are you currently facing and how do you think they could be alleviated?
The first key challenge faced by us is financial sustainability. Due to lack of a sustainability model with the government, we end up investing our own resources to keep the quality of our programme high. As a result, there is a perpetual requirement of gap funding which impacts the sustainability of school operations and causes us to shift our energy to raising funds and away from managing daily operations. In the long run, until a cost-per-child reimbursement model is in place (or similar financial reimbursement), operators such as Peepul may not have an incentive to enter whole school management contracts.
The other challenge lies in ensuring there is data to assess the improvement in learning outcomes at the partnership schools. Since this is a quality intervention, it is critical to measure the student outcomes at government schools and across grades to conduct an appropriate baseline and end line. Assessments are not conducted uniformly across all government schools making it difficult to compare the actual improvement in the partnership school with any other standard of performance.
How can interested people help your organisation?
Quality education is critical to the economic success of individuals and the whole country, and it is imperative that responsible individuals and businesses support right initiatives, especially for disadvantaged children. We need to give the growing young population the skills they need to succeed in the global economy.
Few ways in which interested people can support our work are:
- Adopt and support a model school set up by Peepul
- Start an employee volunteering program to encourage children at the Peepul schools at Delhi
- Advocate with concerned authorities showing support for high-quality PPP schools for improving quality of education in India