Making abundant use of public-private-partnerships, Peepul has made significant strides in its efforts to overhaul the image and quality of government school education in India

There had been repeated requests from the founder of Peepul to visit the Municipal Corporation School at Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi but I was busy travelling around the country to fathom the nuances and the problems that beset school education in the country after having taken over as Secretary, School Education in 2016. I did finally relent but it took me almost two years to do that. And what an experience it turned out to be. It was indeed a perfect example of the ‘Nexus of Good’.

The journey at Peepul began in 2015 when the first exemplar school commenced operations in Delhi as a ‘bright spot’ for excellence in the government system to demonstrate ‘what great looks like’. The exemplar served as a springboard towards realising the potential and possibilities of working with the education system.

Peepul took on an under-enrolled municipal corporation school in one of the elite neighbourhoods of South Delhi — Lajpat Nagar. Enrollment for grades KG and one in this school was only nine pupils. Most students and parents had moved to low-cost private schools with the perception that the quality of schooling was better in these schools. A situation arose where there was a government school spread over 2.5 acres of land but with a total of around 50 students across grade one to five.

Peepul and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) embarked on a school transformation project, using a PPP framework to demonstrate the excellence that could be possible in the government school system and deliver high-quality learning. The poorest families study at government schools because they are fee-free and several benefits are offered (such as meals, scholarships, textbooks) — the system must cater to and ensure these vulnerable children get the same quality of education as any private school to have a chance to succeed in their lives.

On the first day of ‘re-opening’ the premises with a PPP avatar for grades KG and one initially, enrollment was at 90 pupils (compared to 9 pupils). Word spread quickly. Within three months, enrollment had hit full capacity at 120 students. Within a year, enrollment increased to 230 children, with a waitlist of children. Parents were asking for places, as with any private school and attendance was at 75 per cent. The SDMC was soon looking to revitalise 100 such PPP schools.

Although it was only one school, it served as the catalyst for change and pioneered a model that could pave the way for how NGOs and the government could creatively and consciously work together to bring about significant quality improvement. Peepul managed school operations such as teacher hiring, training, pedagogy, assessments, parent and community engagement with the government providing the infrastructure and continued resource allocation by way of meals, scholarships, materials, etc.

This PPP experiment has had phenomenal results. 85 per cent of children are meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations, there is 95 per cent attendance at parent-teacher meetings, 75 per cent attendance and 90 per cent retention rate of students.

Peepul began to codify and solidify school operations over time, creating a prototype for how to replicate this model across other corporations. From operating a single PPP school, Peepul realised that for change to happen within the government system, the definition of PPP had to expand to other areas of functioning. The schools were centres of excellence but there was much to be done beyond providing inspiration and a belief of ‘this is possible’. To show that it was not a ‘one-school wonder’, Peepul expanded the number of schools to three schools using a model where they worked more closely with government school teachers. Hence, they also commenced a teacher development programme to create systemic impact, training 450 plus teachers across 150 schools to impact 16,000 students. This was done through close partnership and building a cadre of champion teachers in the system that could be ambassadors of excellence and trainers for other teachers.

Through teacher development, Peepul reinvented the way teachers are trained and coached. In terms of the direct outcome of the initiative, out of the teachers trained, 96 per cent of them felt the training was relevant and very helpful in their classroom practices and 97 per cent of teachers showed evidence of implementing techniques in their classrooms. Their approach is different from the norm of lecture-based teacher training. Instead, it is based on bite-sized, practical modules followed up by classroom observation and coaching. Data has shown that 90 per cent of these innovative techniques are being implemented in government classrooms across 150 schools.

Amazed at what I saw during the visit to Lajpat Nagar School, I encouraged them to think more deeply about replicating their models at scale. They adopted this approach quite seriously and pivoted their strategy to work in deep partnerships with state and local governments.

As they expanded their work in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, they began to think more deeply and rigorously about the systemic change required to bring about meaningful teacher-student interaction and, at the core, improve classroom practice.

Making it happen in the government school system must translate into an improvement in the quality of the teaching that happens in the classroom and with each child. Using this at their core, they moved from thinking about exemplar schools towards creating exemplar education ecosystems.

An exemplar ecosystem would be focused on academic excellence with four critical pillars. These were creating a visual exemplar for building belief, teacher training and development to build skills, mentoring and coaching for school principals, block and cluster-level academic officials and monitoring and accountability frameworks to ensure the use of data at the state and district level.

The model that has emerged is a distinctive one. Peepul is one of the only non-profits in India that works at both the micro and the macro layers of the government.

In the micro, they now run three exemplar public-private partnership (PPP) schools that cater to over 1,100 children. The idea is to run a network of exemplar schools across Indian states to raise expectations and show through results on the ground.

At the macro, they work on teacher and school leader capacity building for teachers in Delhi and work closely with the Government of Madhya Pradesh to run a teacher professional development for all 3,20,000 teachers across the 1,00,000 schools in the state.

The case in point of building an exemplar ecosystem is well seen in their Covid response work in MP, where they saw the Covid school closures as an opportunity to boost teacher skills. What started as a Covid response effort in partnership with the government has now shifted to a state-wide PPP effort on teacher development called CM Rise. A progressive State Government with a dynamic set of officials, led by an outstanding IAS officer, Rashmi Arun Shami, the Education Department have played a big role in creating a sustainable and successful partnership towards having an impact at scale. The State and Peepul, under the inspired leadership of its founder, Kruti Bharucha are now working together on a systemic teacher and school strengthening plan that can be an exemplar for the country.

The practices of CM Rise are now being adopted by other states and appreciated by NCERT as a best practice.

Views expressed are personal