India, home to one of the largest educational systems in the world, has taken rapid strides to achieve 98.4 per cent enrolment in primary education. The focus has now shifted to improving learning outcomes and ensuring quality education at the primary level. An ASER Report 2022 highlights that while gross enrolment has seen an increase, the percentage of children in Class 3 in government or private schools who could read a Class 2 text reduced from 27.3 per cent in 2018 to 20.5 per cent in 2022 across states. Moreover, the percentage of children enrolled in Class 5 in government or private schools who could read a Class 2-level text dropped from 50.5 per cent in 2018 to 42.8 per cent in 2022. Development Impact Bonds (DIB) are an innovative and outcome-oriented instrument for financing such development projects. A salient feature of DIB is the transfer of risk from public agencies to the private sector. Hence, it plays a catalytic role in encouraging private capital to complement traditional efforts and funding mechanisms. These DIBs are essentially result-based, meaning that outcome funds pay investors their principal plus returns only if these programmes succeed in delivering results. This alignment between financial and social returns incentivises the private sector to work more efficiently by rigorously monitoring performance periodically, and enabling service delivery to respond to new data simultaneously as it is collected and analysed.
Haryana Early Literacy Development Impact Bond
Maahi, a Grade 1 student from Sundarpur, Haryana, who struggled to read initially, was able to read 70 words per minute (exceeding the Global Minimum Proficiency standards for reading), thanks to the Haryana Early Literacy Development Impact Bond programme. The first-ever DIB in India to leverage CSR funding for outcome payment exclusively focused on early literacy, Haryana DIB was the game-changer in redefining the primary education space. This Rs 15.57-crore initiative was implemented by the Language and Learning Foundation, with IndusInd Bank and SBI as outcome funders, Social Finance India as the DIB Convener, Central Square Foundation as outcome payers and Educational Initiatives as Outcome Evaluator. The project’s objectives were twofold: i) Improving literacy outcomes for Grade 1 and 2 students across seven districts of Haryana; and ii) Enhancing the capacity and commitment of the government educational system for improving foundational learning outcomes at the scale. Earlier, the Language and Learning Foundation had implemented a demonstration project in 175 schools in three blocks of the Kurukshetra district of Haryana in 2018 under the aegis of the Prarambhik Bhasha Shikshak Adhikaran programme. It had reported significant learning gains for 3,500 students and established a strong proof-of-concept. Based on this, the state government invited LLF to scale the project to seven districts. Fortunately, the DIB Convenor, Social Finance India (SFI), approached LLF at that time with a proposal.
Unique design and approach
The Haryana Early Literacy DIB was pathbreaking in several ways. Firstly, it was the first time in India that the CSR Foundation had invested in an impact bond for education. Secondly, it was outcome-focused with the target (pre-agreed) outcomes set initially, and the results achieved exceeded the target by 3.5 times. Thirdly, it was implemented in collaboration with the government and provides a successful model for scaling up, and lastly, it establishes flexibility in delivery, making it a desirable model for replication. It had the following key components: i) Teacher Professional Development; ii) Strengthening Teacher Mentors in the government system through effective academic support and monitoring, courses on early language and learning and joint classroom visits; iii) Developing children’s learning materials, such as workbooks, big books and other learning aids; and iv) Assessment and remediation of learning outcomes.
Successful pivot during COVID-19
While the programme ran successfully in the inaugural year, the onset of the pandemic, followed by the closure of schools, presented a formidable challenge. During this time, LLF pivoted successfully to the Har Ghar School Programme which was a testament to the program’s agile approach. Under this programme, LLF trained community-based volunteers in teaching-learning practices and equipped them with learning material including workbooks, storybooks, etc. It adopted home-based learning for disadvantaged children, wherein homework was delivered directly through WhatsApp on a platform supported by Rocket Learning. Visits and calls by block coordinators, tracking student learning, volunteer-teacher-run community classes and parental engagement were salient features of this approach. Delineated outcomes and outstanding results
The Haryana Early Literacy DIB had clearly defined goals since the outset, with letter fluency per minute, word fluency per minute, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension and word writing being the key metrics for measuring its performance. The results assessed by a third party, Educational Initiatives, showed that the programme achieved exceptional gains in literacy outcomes, such as 3.5x learning gains over defined targets with all pre-agreed learning targets met. The intervention was able to achieve learning gains of an additional 1.61 years in schooling over business-as-usual schooling (using oral reading fluency as the indicator for the acquisition of foundational literacy skills). When compared with the Global Minimum Proficiency equivalent standard of Oral Reading Fluency for Hindi (as defined in NCERT’s Foundational Learning Study 2022), it is seen that 65 per cent of students in the intervention group met or exceeded the Global Minimum Proficiency Standards of being able to read more than 35 words per minute at the end of Grade 2. Approximately 1,64,000 children and 7,500 educators in 3,300 schools in 7 districts of Haryana reaped the benefits of the programme. Compared with similar programmes in Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Mali, Uganda, Liberia, Jordan, Tonga, Krygyz Republic, Congo Republic, Papua New Guinea and South Africa, its impact was found to be greater than all programmes in these countries. It is also among the top three programs worldwide in terms of Oral Reading Fluency and Reading Comprehension.
The Haryana Early Literacy DIB programme paved the way for improving foundational learning at scale. The key learnings from the programme have now been adopted by the state government into the state-wide Foundational and Literacy program called NIPUN Haryana. LLF is now closely working with the Haryana Government in all districts to achieve the goals of NIPUN Haryana. One of the key reasons for Haryana Early Literacy DIB’s success was that it was a system-focused government-led intervention that led to implementation at scale. All stakeholders were aligned on a common pre-agreed set of outcomes, which, coupled with data-driven decision-making, helped the programme exceed its targets. Moreover, the programme was spread across several years and followed a flexible funding approach which allowed for mid-course correction. As nongovernmental organisations explore newer avenues in funding, there is immense potential for harnessing DIB in the development sector, especially in the context of education. Not only does it open a new funding vista, but it can also enhance the state’s capacity in Foundational Literacy and Numeracy. DIB can play a pivotal role in ushering in a competitive ethos and result-focused approach in development programmes and utilising private capital to bridge the financing gap. However, it is often criticised for prioritising short-term gains in learning over larger systemic processes. However, if restructured appropriately to support system strengthening and system reforms, it can lead to windfall gains. The Haryana Early Literacy DIB programme will serve as a benchmark for much larger outcome-based funding in education programmes in the years to come. The public-private partnership model that the Language and Learning Foundation has put in place under the inspired leadership of its founder and former IAS officer, Dhir Jhingran, is a wonderful example of Nexus of Good as it can be replicated and scaled.
Note: This article was previously published in Millennium Post.