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Imagine an education system with 1.5 million schools and a 250 million student enrollment, with a budget of 2.7 percent of gross domestic product. This is in a country with 1.326 billion people, 572 million of whom are between 0 and 24 years old. How do you make this education system work to meet student needs? Social funders may find themselves giving as much as they can and still not seeing the impact they envisaged. Meanwhile, social purpose organizations, whether nonprofits or social enterprises, may be addressing gaps but still feel as if they are fighting a losing battle. How can these organizations reframe their approach to create lasting impact?

Access to education in India is nearly universal. Yet gaps persist across education segments. Access to early childhood education remains problematic, for example, and access to primary and secondary education is elusive for girls, marginalized communities, and children with special needs. Dropout rates increase with grades, and only 64 percent out of a total of 99.7 million adolescents progress to secondary school. Vocational education does not meet industry demands, and overall, learning outcomes—including basic ones such as reading and basic arithmetic—continue to be poor.

These are as much challenges as opportunities. The total financial requirement for India to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is to ensure inclusive and quality education for all by 2030, is $173 billion annually. This exceeds the current Indian government budget of $51.5 billion a year. Private social funders are well positioned to fill this gap; 54 percent of ultra-high-net-worth individuals in India surveyed by Bain reported supporting education. Corporate social responsibility funding in India has been significant, with 36 percent ($419 million) going into education in 2016. Impact investing, however, is yet to be tapped with only around $45 million on average per annum between 2014-2017 according to an analysis of education deals in the Venture Intelligence database.

Nonetheless, efforts by funders and social purpose organizations to address education quality in India have been disparate and have failed to substantially improve learning outcomes. Despite the advantages of funding potentially game-changing interventions as an ecosystem—focusing on the connectivity among various interventions and programs to catalyze systemic change—less than 3 percent of philanthropic funding goes into these types of interventions. For our latest report, in partnership with the India-based social impact strategy consulting and implementation firm Sattva, and supported by Credit Suisse, we recently examined the work of corporate funders across 151 companies and 567 projects. Five of these companies implemented 6 ecosystem change projects, with a total budget of $7.4 million between 2016-2017.

A few recent multi-stakeholder partnerships shed light on effective ecosystem solutions and can help lead the way for future efforts.

Ecosystem Solutions to Improve Learning Outcomes in India

As India moves from ensuring access to education to enhancing the quality of education, the improvement of learning outcomes—especially literacy and numeracy—is critical. Two collaborative models stand out. First, while the education system in India from grades 1 to 8 hinges largely on public infrastructure and government schools, there is a renewed interest in public-private partnerships (PPPs). Following a government agenda, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF), Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF) worked with the Haryana and Rajasthan state governments to achieve a 3-6 percent improvement in students’ literacy and numeracy, and bring about systemic change in two years time.

Second, a movement toward collective impact is under way in affordable early childhood education, led by FSG through its Programme to Improve Private Pre-school Education (PIPE), in collaboration with Central Square Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, UBS Optimus Foundation, Marshall Foundation, and Omidyar Network. Shaping learning capabilities during a child’s early developmental stage between 3-6 years of age helps build a lifelong foundation for learning. Currently, about 70 percent of the urban population in India earns between 8,000 and 25,000 Indian rupees (between $125 and $390) a month, and 90 percent of 5-year-old children from these low-income families are getting early childhood education from affordable private schools, which charge 500 to 1,650 Indian rupees ($8 to $26) per child per month, inclusive of all fees and books. Unfortunately, the education is rote-based, and the learning outcomes are poor: 78 percent of children entering grade 1 cannot read simple three-letter words, and 41 percent cannot count numbers up to 20, or conduct simple addition and subtraction. PIPE’s initial phase saw the completion of an extensive research project investigating parents’ aspirations for early childhood education as well as effective affordable private school business models. In the next phase, FSG aims to work with existing early childhood education providers to improve the quality in affordable private schools, and with parents to promote a holistic education beyond tests and exams.

Neither PPPs nor collective impact initiatives are new, but adopting existing models rather than re-inventing the wheel can help scale impact more quickly. To work well, organizations in multi-stakeholder collaborations need to carefully align their goals and make sure the roles they play are complementary.

Alignment of Goals

While joint efforts will increase available resources, different stakeholders might have different goals in mind. For partnerships to bear fruit, organizations must have the same objective. In the case of PPP collaboration above, the organizations’ interests converged around state objectives pertaining to learning outcomes in public schools. While working together to maximize impact. MSDF and KEF achieved their organizational goals around promoting quality education for all, while BCG established its thought leadership in the field.  

With the PIPE project, FSG has undertaken an extensive research exercise to understand parents’ aspirations for early childhood education and effective affordable private school mode. The research serves as the basis for goal alignment between different partners in the collective, as well as between funders, schools, and parents—all important stakeholders in the early childhood education space.

Complementary Roles

Well-defined and mutually reinforcing roles among the collaborators ensure that every partner contributes in a unique way based on their strengths and expertise. Intermediaries tend to focus on research, consulting, and convening, for example, while foundations provide funding. In the case of public schools in Rajasthan and Haryana, BCG and KEF focused on implementation while MSDF provided sponsorship. With PIPE, FSG is leading the effort with its research on providers and parents, and now looks to funders and social purpose organizations to complement that effort.

Opportunities Going Forward

Conversations at our AVPN India Summit last week, our research, and the examples above indicate that funders and social purpose organizations can help drive ecosystem change through collaborative efforts that create a common infrastructure, including insights, curricula, standards and benchmarks, and capacity building for nonprofits, social enterprises, and hybrid organizations. Organizations looking to truly improve education outcomes in India would do well to think about with whom and how they can partner. This as the only path to an education system—with 1.5 million schools and 250 million student enrolment for 572 million 0-24 year olds—that will meet student needs.

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