A systems approach to democratise quality education in India


As an advisor to the Government of Jharkhand on public schooling, I spent the past year assessing schools of Ranchi District; interacting with children, teachers, and parents from some of the most remote and destitute parts of the country. 2020 did not just devastate our healthcare systems but it also brought education systems in these parts of the country to a standstill. A report presented by the Samagra Sikha Abhiyan unit in December 2020 highlighted the repugnant reality of the state of education in Ranchi- 


only 29% of the two lakh children enrolled in government schools were receiving ANY learning material from the State run online learning programs facilitated via WhatsApp. 


Borrowing from the hackneyed saying, the pandemic has uncloaked India’s digital divide as well as its class divide. 


This letter is a clarion call for action from education reformists present in governments, private businesses and nonprofits. It also discusses some of the challenges in the sector and how we, at the Government of Jharkhand, are tackling these by adopting a systems approach for problem-solving. 


Putting Collaboration Into Action


My past life at an investment bank taught me that “collaboration” is banal corporate jargon to be cordial with your teammates. After some un-learning, I realized that the true potential of collaboration comes with a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all stakeholders working towards a complex goal. Here’s a glimpse of what this partnership unlocks for its stakeholders:


  1. The strength of the Government lies in the gigantic machinery that it operates whether it be in education, healthcare, or other public services. The size and scale of the government to reach billions of people is unparalleled. Its weakness: innovation and speed. Drafting legislation and executing it on the ground can take months, even years to realize. 
  2. Corporates, especially startups, compensate for the shortcomings of the government with their agility and propensity to disrupt. The achilles heel of lean, asset-light startups is the cost associated with scaling in remote areas, acquiring customers and investing in human capital. 
  3. Nonprofits that specialize in a sector or have a dedicated cadre of volunteers often prove to be a very efficient way to deliver public services and bridge the last-mile gap albeit this sector often reels under the pressure of raising external funding.


It would be helpful to present a case study where the District Administration of Ranchi under the leadership of its Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Chhavi Ranjan I.A.S., applied the systems approach on a problem-statement born out of the pandemic: 


How to create an inclusive environment for the children returning to schools after a year of emotional turmoil, stress and anxiety? 




Mr. Ranjan addressed the urgency of the program by stating that “Social emotional learning (SEL) is an important and often neglected aspect of our education system. This will help our children develop cognitive, interpersonal, moral, and emotional intelligence to fight off the Covid fatigue and return to school stronger than ever.” 


The Government partnered with Project Rangeet, Child Rights & You (CRY) and Global Shapers Mumbai (part of the World Economic Forum) to address this issue by incorporating a social-emotional learning curriculum in the government schooling system and upskilling its teachers to deliver the new learning materials to the children. 

To test the efficacy of the program, the Administration launched a pilot version with 5 government schools in Ranchi. 

The social, emotional and ecological curriculum developed by Project Rangeet promotes activity-based learning methods to get the children thinking about gender equality, diversity, inclusion, mindfulness and sustainability. Only one device is required by the instructor- this solves the problem of having multiple personal smartphones with internet access. CRY volunteers played an important role of supporting teachers with the new technology and ensuring seamless delivery of content to students. Global Shapers Mumbai took on the role of knowledge partners to conceptualize a framework under their ‘GoodSeed’ movement to deliver holistic education to children with an emphasis on universal human values.


The ecstatic response from teachers and students who participated in the program has prompted the Government to scale it gradually to other schools in the District. 

But what made this intervention truly unique?

  1. The time taken from acknowledging the problem to conceptualizing the idea and delivering the service to teachers and students was just under 4 weeks. 
  2. Training of teachers and dissemination of learning materials were carried out at a fraction of the cost of other SEL programs.
  3. It harnessed the strengths of governments, businesses and nonprofits to meet their individual objectives as well as create lasting impact on society.

Policy Changes To Catch The Tide of Privatization (early)


Barring this extraordinary year, rife with private school closures and financial distresses of the rural household, it is hard to deny the undercurrent of privatization of the Indian education system. Rather than viewing the proliferation of private schools as competition to public schooling, policy makers must embrace this trend for two distinct reasons:

  1. As research from education economist Geeta Gandhi Kingdon points out, it can be 3-4 times more expensive to educate a child in public schools as compared to private schooling. In Jharkhand, for the year 2014-15 the per pupil expenditure per month in a government school was Rs. 668 as compared to a median private school education of Rs. 446 per month.[1]
  2. As I highlighted earlier, to maximize benefit and deliver high-quality services faster, the government must use its scale to enable innovative ideas stemming from the private sector.


Introducing a school voucher system via direct-benefit-transfer can afford parents the freedom to choose a school for their child based on the merits of the school rather than the financial position of the household. 


Ray of Hope


Our work, under the guidance of pioneering officers like Mr. Ranjan, on improving educational outcomes in Ranchi demonstrates that it is possible to create systems that can accommodate various stakeholder objectives be it corporate profits or the delivery of public services and at the same time have a lasting impact on society. Whether it be our partnership with Project Rangeet to introduce social-emotional learning, our linkup with Amity University to upskill government school teachers in the midst of a pandemic, or our upcoming collaboration with Masoom in an effort to set up night schools to curb dropout rates in Ranchi- the underlying fact remains that collaboration using a systems approach holds the key to development. 


About the author: Nish Shetty is a policy associate at Swaniti Initiative and an advisor to the Deputy Commissioner of Ranchi on health and education. He is also a member of the Global Shapers Community, a World Economic Forum initiative.


[1]The Private Schooling Phenomenon in India: A Review by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon


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