Addressing Scale and Sustainability in Early Education in India

Delivering quality education to every child in India is a huge challenge. The size and scale itself are daunting – about 1.5 million schools, 8.5 million teachers and nearly 250 million children. In 2001, the Indian government took a bold step and created the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and this, over the years, built the infrastructure needed to house and teach 250 million children. By all accounts, it was a bold and effective move – prior to SSA less than 60% of the children were in school – today more than 95% are in school. While getting schools in place was done what was missing was quality schooling. Successive surveys since 2005, such as the Annual State of Education Report (ASER), show that learning outcomes of children are far from satisfactory – in fact, the results are quite depressing and what is further disconcerting is that despite knowing the state of education, there is nothing in surveys of latter years to show that the needle has moved significantly in the right direction.

Clearly, it is time for another bold SSA-creation-type moment. We need people and organizations that can change the current system of thinking and acting; we need them to pull all stakeholders together, strengthen ideas, make them more viable and scalable, and thus multiply impact. A survey of the landscape will quickly reveal that we are a country of remarkable pilot studies – there are several dozen, if not hundreds, organizations that are hugely talented and innovative – but somehow, there are no visible examples of organizations that have done work at scale and sustainably.

Which of course means that we need to understand clearly what scale and sustainability mean. The government school system is the one that gives us scale – if we have to make a difference in society then we have to learn how to work with the government which, in itself, is no mean feat. While it may seem painfully slow there is a process inside government and once this process is followed and your solution accepted then the impact can be made across very large numbers of learners. We are talking, in a mid-sized state like Karnataka, of nearly 45,000 schools and 10+ million children – that is scale.

I believe that scale without sustainability becomes meaningless. And sustainability goes way beyond financial sustainability – it means that your solution is accepted by and delivered effectively through the state system of teachers and educators. And this means, one should think in terms of exit strategies.

So how does one go about making scale and sustainability happen? The assumption is that your pedagogy and tools are innovative and very good. At Akshara Foundation, we have over the past dozen years, evolved a model for the delivery of primary school math teaching/learning through the government school system and we now are in a position to articulate what we believe is a workable model. Akshara’s Ganitha Kalika Andolana (GKA) looks at multiple stakeholders and tries to answer the question “what’s in it for me?” for each of the stakeholders.

First, the teachers. Before we started out, we tried to understand why teachers had trouble in delivering math instruction and found out that while there were textbooks, they had no tools to transact the textbook. In other words, teachers were asking for an effective kit that would help them teach math. And they are right! Math should always be taught using a constructivist approach using what is called the CRA method – from Concrete to Representational to Abstract. Our observations prior to GKA told us that teachers were relying on taking the child straight to the Abstract mode which mean that rote-learning came into play and that concept understanding and clarity were missing. Needless to say, Akshara created an innovative, scientifically designed toolkit which now is part of every government school in Karnataka and Odisha. The kit was supplemented by teacher training both in the face-to-face mode and now via 25 hours of digital AV modules that covers the entire curriculum. And all this was created so that the burden on the teacher was eliminated, and the teachers were able to appreciate that it (GKA) was good for them as well. It is therefore not surprising that every math period every day in these schools is a GKA period.

The GKA 1.0 Kit (for grades 1-5) was designed by Akshara’s resource team with inputs from the field. Recently, the Karnataka Education Department invited Akshara to develop GKA 2.0 kit (grades 6-8) and this has been completed – the difference here being that the kit was developed by government schoolteachers who worked along with Akshara’s resource people through a series of workshops spanning nearly four months. Hidden in this development is a message of sustainability – when a key stakeholder “owns” the solution the chances of it working well across the system get multiplied. See

Every state has a large cadre of resource support personnel in the form of Cluster Resource Persons (CRPs or CRCCs); Block Education Officers (BEOs) and Block Resource Persons (BRPs), etc. They are expected to support the schools academically and for administratively as well. Part of their efforts include trying to understand how children are performing and whether programmes implemented through the state are working. To help them with this task with respect to GKA, we created a simple process of data collection with FOUR questions only. Each one of those questions was designed such that, based on the survey results, we (stakeholders) need to take action. As an example, we ask the question – were the GKA kits used during the math class? – and if we know that a significant portion of teachers do not use the kits then we need to understand why and remedy the situation. The Resource Support personnel observe and send this data to Akshara which then collates and shares results in a very short time (in fact, almost real-time). This ownership by the state resources also ensures long-term sustainability.

Community engagement is a big part of the GKA model. It is often said that it takes a village to educate a child. At Akshara we took this to heart. A huge cadre of Education Volunteers at the Gram Panchayat (GP) level were identified and nurtured and they manage multiple community-led events such as a GP-level Math contest (see ). They also manage other tasks but all of them is done in a very focussed manner and without it being a burden on them. Typically, an Education Volunteer invests about 3-4 hours every month to support the school whose alumni they usually are. What is noteworthy here is that the Education Volunteers work without any compensation – as of this writing (January 2023) there are more than 50,000 such volunteers in Karnataka alone.

The GP level contest is a well-designed property – at Akshara we like to say that it is a contest for children AND a (con)test for all other stakeholders. Every stakeholder gets valuable inputs – teachers get to know the weakest areas of their wards’ performance, parents and community members get to see how their wards are faring, elected officials like Gram Panchayat members and School Development & Monitoring Committee (SDMC) Members all get to see how the children of their geography are performing. All of this is done in a highly transparent manner and results are shared within three hours with all. This contest has been a huge success – attendance is usually 92+% and this is financially sponsored by the local communities – another way of ensuring long-term sustainability.

What is the role of government in all this? Without significant government buy-in, none of this would have been possible – GKA would remain another interesting pilot. But the states where Akshara has scaled – Karnataka and Odisha – both have recognized the importance of this model and have invested in the procurement of kits in each school (through their formal tendering processes) and for teacher training costs, etc. This is a sign of ownership and commitment to the model.

Of course, over the years, Akshara has stayed current and leveraged technology in multiple ways. We invested in an Android app called Building Blocks that is available in bundled form on Google PlayStore and in an unbundled form on the Ministry of Education’s Diksha Platform. This app is a collection of interactive games and is linked to the curriculum and it was but natural for us to link textbooks to these games using QR codes at the end of chapters in the textbooks – something called energized textbooks. And more innovative uses of technology is in the works.

True scale and sustainability can only be achieved when the community starts demanding quality education and starts participating in its delivery. Only then will the supply-side stakeholders start addressing this demand. At Akshara we believe that for effective transformative change to happen we need a holistic model that makes sure that children, teachers, educators, community members, elected representatives, NGOs, and the government all see value. And all the bits have to play together concurrently for impact. This transformation will not happen in 2-3 years – something pilots tend to do to show that they work. Since the entire system has to be “educated” we reckon this would require a commitment for a decade or more so that we are able to infuse the system with the ability to “learn, unlearn and relearn”. We constantly need to monitor the progress of every single element in the model and not just learning outcomes of children because without all of that playing together you will not hear or see the outcomes.

Ashok Kamath
Chairman & Managing Trustee, Akshara Foundation

Campaign on Ice: A working trip to Ladakh

Recently Arvind Venkatadri, who heads our Library programme was in Leh to train around 100 Heads of Government Primary schools, where 17000 ft Foundation has set up school-based Libraries. Akshara is their knowledge partner in this initiative.
Read below Arvind’s travelogue to know more about this exciting trip and working in Leh in sub zero temperatures.

Welcome to Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, Leh. The temperature outside is -12 degrees Celsius”. I had arrived in Ladakh, but a Ladakhi welcome had already been bestowed on me the previous day at New Delhi airport, where I was met by a smiling Stanzin Norbu from the 17000ft Foundation. I was here at the invitation of Sujata and Sandeep Sahu, founders of 17K, to help them provide a training-orientation to Heads of some 100 Government Primary Schools, where they had set up their School Libraries as part of their programme with rural Ladakhi schools.
It seemed at first sight that there were just two things in Ladakh: ice, and space. From my bedroom window, on the ground floor, I could gaze upon the sunlit spires of mountains on the far shore of the Indus. I had been given a list of clothing material to buy and I got it all from Decathlon here in Bangalore, the most important part being a Goose-Down-Jacket-with-a-hood. I had thermals and skiing-gloves and fleece sweaters and fleece caps and a balaclava and skiing clothing ( form-fit trousers and shirt ) and a baggy waterproof pair of trousers. I had been asked to take Diamox tablets for altitude sickness and I felt no ill effects whatsoever.

I spent the first day getting used to all the clothing I was wearing and took a walk into Leh. All that rustling of clothing made me turn around more than once, but I was alone. Never have I seen snow-swept, sunlit streets so desolate: there was not a person in sight, it could have been a ghost town. I did trudge up into the market street to finally see some cars and people. Breathing was not easy that first day, and it was not just the cold. The words “thin air” took a new, precise meaning for me once again.

The training began the next day and I spent two days lecturing in Hindi to the Heads from Govt Schools there; some of these schools are located at 15,000 feet ! Training began at 11.20 AM (after the first period; it is after all a college for Teachers) and ended at 4 pm on both days. Most of these HMs are were very young, the average age must have been 25-30 not more. Schools in Ladakh are shut from December to February; that is when the Teachers complete most of their training for the new academic session. The training was held at the DIET (District Institute of Education Training). The training rooms had hot stoves called Bukhari-s, three of them, with chimneys leading through the roof. All the Staff members sat in groups around the bukhari-s and every hour or so, a woman would come in and add firewood to the stoves. Lunch was a strange tea-and-bun affair of 20 mins; on both days we hit the town restaurant for lunch at 4.30 PM. I had some interesting food, the best being a thukpa, a spaghetti laden soup with veggies; very satisfying “winter” food.

The training was on Libraries: how to set them up, how to grade books, match these to children and their reading abilities, and how to measure that the Libraries have impact. We also talked of the various creative activities that we could conduct in Libraries. At the end of the two days, the Principal of the Institute Angmo Phuksong gave me something I was not prepared for: she honoured me with a long silk scarf, called a Khatok, which she formally hung around my neck. It is a very Ladakhi way and also a very big deal, I was told.
 I was reading Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World, an apt book for this place. The travels and thoughts of the author mingled with my impressions, as I saw Abbaley and Ammaley, our hosts, sit in the sunshine working the beads and reciting the Name four lakh times. There were shrines with large red and yellow prayer wheels at street corners; a steep hill in upper Leh seemed to have a monastery on top, but it seemed beyond me to attempt to get there. I contented myself with listening and humming Manasa Yetulortune in that lazy morning sunshine and talking to the two house cats in Tamil, who insisted that I part with some of my puri-s.

It snowed on two days, both times in the morning and continuing through most of the day. It was not snowing at 6 AM when I awoke, and the garden was bare; by 6.30 AM, there was a carpet of white that grew 2 inches as I watched. Across the Indus, the mountains turned completely white that morning. On both days, when the sun went down, it very rapidly grew really cold. Folks, the geese know what they have on. The goose-down jacket kept me completely comfortable, as did the thermal leg-wear. My shoes however, did not prevent my toes from freezing, despite the double layer of woollen socks that I was wearing ! Blankets in the room were two very heavy razai-s; plus a sweater, a head cap and the room heater was on. After a while, I either lost my head completely or I got “used to” the cold perhaps or the thukpa was working, for I was walking around barefoot in the room and to the tiled loo and even washing my feet each time with cold water. Water was delivered to the room; two buckets of ice-cold water and a half-bucket of hot. Brushing, shaving and laving myself with the cold water was, well, fun. On the last day, the bucket had pieces of ice floating in it too!

The day before I left, we were free, so we drove 30 kms to Nimmu, west along the Leh-Kargil highway. Stupendous scenery with vast open fields and slopes and towering red-brown mountains covered generously with snow. Nimmu has a Bihari-run shop that sells deadly samosas but sadly, the joint was closed that day. While we waited for our friend Dawa to catch up with his friends here, we wandered across the street, the highway that leads to Kargil in the west. An Army truck with snow chains over its wheels was parked there, the driver looking like a Telugu man for all I could tell. Across the street, a tiny and brilliantly coloured J & K Transport bus was parked and ready to go, the driver insistently honking to coax the reluctant passengers out of the tea-shop. Must have been just the thin air, but I thought I saw Mithun Chakraborty drape a blanket over Anita Raj’s shoulders as they both climbed up and sat on the freezing roof-top. Koi shaque? The bus disappeared in a flurry of snow and I hummed Zeehaale Muskin mukon baranjhish, but my voice would just not come out in the cold. My nose was also hurting with an insistent bleeding, a common affliction for me when I visit cold places.

A short drive and here we were at Sangam: the Indus, flowing from the South-East, meeting the Zanskar, coming in from South-West. The already broad Indus was almost completely frozen over but for two 20-feet wide streams separated by icy islands; the Zanskar was laden with pieces of ice, and even the water had a different colour! Paani da, rang vekh ke, Akhiyan jo hanjhu rul de….certainly the sparkling sunlight, the champagne air, the untouched snow and the immense peaks around me had my eyes streaming. I walked as far out on the ice as I could; I swept away the inches of snow to see the frozen ice-glass water of the Indus. And took a GPS reading that put me dead in the middle of the Indus (34.165305N, 77.332089E ). Lovely!

Ladakhi girls are good-looking. Period. And the children are adorable! As I departed, my host’s little grand-daughter culled some “apples” from her rosy Kashmiri cheeks and offered them to me as a parting gift. Abbaley gave me a hug and Ammaley, a handshake.

I know that I will go back there again, to be once again part of the Campaign on Ice.”