Investing corporate leaders in solving India’s education crisis

September 20 and 21, 2012

On September 20-21, 2012, Central Square Foundation organised events in Delhi and Mumbai aimed at sensitizing corporate leaders to India’s education crisis. The functions were attended by nearly 300 leading CEOs and prominent business leaders.

The objective was to raise awareness about the massive problem of education inequity in India and to inspire attendees to work in various meaningful ways to bridge this gap within a generation. Founder & CEO of Central Square Foundation, Ashish Dhawan struck a chord with the audience as he spoke of his personal journey, transitioning from the world of private equity to the non-profit sector.

Pointing to the fact that India has largely solved the problem of access, Ashish reminded attendees that, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhyan (SSA) scheme, over 300,000 schools have been built and net enrolment has reached 97% in Class 1.  And yet, of the nearly 30 million children who enter Class 1, only 28% will make it to Class 12. Ashish attributed the root cause of the abysmal dropout rate to poor quality of education, underscoring that access without quality has little meaning.

It is clear that our nation is facing a severe education crisis. According to the ASER report, 52% of class 5 children cannot even read Class 2 level text. India finally took the international PISA test in 2011 and ranked second to last globally, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan. Ashish stressed that “India’s growth will come to a grinding halt in the next decade if we don’t act NOW. There is an urgent need for us as a nation to invest in our greatest resource — our children.”

“Would you send your kids to a school with fantastic infrastructure but average teachers? Or would you rather send them to a class under a tree but with a fantastic teacher?” Ashish asked his audience. For Ashish, the choice was obvious. It takes the best and brightest minds to come into teaching and see teaching as a promising career option. Ashish emphasized the need to invest in our human resources — our teachers and school principals — if we want our education system to deliver excellence.  Technology also has the potential to be a game-changer and to facilitate both learning and teaching. It can help personalize learning for children and scale innovation. Technology can also help a brilliant teacher reach millions of children instead of being limited to a class of 30 children.

Ashish called for greater accountability in schools to ensure children are learning. Standardised assessments and low-stakes testing at the elementary level are some ways he suggested to make the school system more transparent and accountable. The Right to Education Act makes it mandatory for every school to have a School Management Committee (SMC) with 75% representation of parents. We also need to build capacities of parents so they may hold the system accountable for student learning.

As an organization, Central Square Foundation is trying to change people’s mindsets and drive home the point that change is not only possible but critical. “Who was the first person to run the 4-minute mile?” Ashish prodded his audience. “Roger Banister!” was the answer in chorus. Roger Banister showed to the world what was possible, and within a few weeks there were others who had broken Banister’s record. Similarly, such proof points of success are possible in education and can be used to push for policy reform. “We must believe not that every child can learn but that she will learn,” Ashish said.
Ashish shared a short film that encapsulates Central Square Foundation’’s mission, described its first few grants, and called upon the audience to join together in raising the bar for education in India. He closed by inviting all attendees to collaborate with Central Square Foundation in finding common goals and driving systemic change.

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