‘A good education is the bedrock for creating enlightened citizens’

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Ajay Piramal, 57, Chairman, Piramal Group
Ajay Piramal, 57, Chairman, Piramal Group Photo: Fotocorp

My grandfather was the first in my family to get involved in education. Eighty-five years ago, he set up a school in Bagar, Rajasthan, where the first student was a Harijan. He also set up the first girls’ school there, something unheard of at the time. Having spent the past decade working with Pratham, India’s largest NGO dealing in primary education, I firmly believe that education can and is making a difference.

It is true our country has made much progress over the past few decades by establishing various enabling structures for universalising education. The government has created enough infrastructure by way of schools, and the implementation of the Right to Education Act and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan have helped push up enrolment rates in government schools to more than 95 percent. The mid-day meal scheme, however flawed in practice, does encourage children to attend school.

However, we also know from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which Pratham has been publishing since 2005, that there has been a continual decline in actual student learning, to the extent that more than 50 percent of Class V students in government schools cannot read a Class II text. India’s performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey in 2012, in which only Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — India’s two best states — participated, was similarly abysmal. In reading and mathematics, the two states beat only Kyrgyzstan in the 74-country survey. All of this, combined with the high dropout rate, highlights that it is time for deep introspection and action on the quality of primary education.

To address this issue, we have been working on a model of educational leadership through the Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership — a three-year partnership with headmasters in government schools to develop their leadership capacity to facilitate school reform. Headmasters are uniquely positioned to influence behavioural changes in the school environment and in the larger community. Besides, they are the link between the school and the larger education system to help create a pipeline of efficient administrators. We believe that provided the right kind of support, they are able to articulate their vision as school leaders, set time-bound goals for improving school processes and take decisions towards building better learning outcomes.

We facilitate this change through a fellowship scheme, which we began about five years ago. The Piramal Fellowship is an intense two-year youth leadership development programme that helps talented young people develop the skills to cause positive and lasting change in society. Fellows work as ‘sahyogis’ to five school principals each, and bring their problem-solving skills and creativity to grassroots issues.

Taking the learnings developed through these two programmes, we are also working to launch the Piramal School of Leadership in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, which will offer accredited courses in education leadership, social leadership and change management, which we believe can contribute to a pipeline of future national leaders.

A good education is really the bedrock for creating enlightened citizens. By ‘enlightened’, I encompass different categories: individuals who will be wealth creators, those who will contribute to nation-building through sheer hard work and those who will work to bring about development at a societal level. For all the talk about our demographic dividend, it is indisputable that if the young generation lacks education, it loses its employability and any dividend is a mirage.

A McKinsey report last year found that over 50 percent of the workforce is underqualified and if we do not take drastic measures, this number will grow much more in the next two decades, when more than 17 crore people will enter the workforce. We must serve our future citizens by moving beyond focussing purely on literacy — by upgrading our vocational education delivery and making the citizens empathetic and ready for the future.

All this requires extensive partnership between the government and the private sector. The government has the programmes, necessary funds that we can never match, a huge network and the reach required to effect change. NGOs, on the other hand, are always looking to try out new ideas in their quest to improve overall quality. The willingness and ability to innovate is, indeed, key to making a paradigm shift. Innovation by its very nature entails failure; we need to build on these to discover approaches that do work. Unlike the government, NGOs can afford to take these risks. However, we need to accept that any change that we introduce has to be capable of being scaled up — a lot of entrepreneurs are happy with the work they are doing in a small catchment area. If we are to solve the problems of our country, we need more audacious and ambitious targets.

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