Piramal Foundation has transformed government schools in Jhunjhunu district: people now prefer them to expensive private schools
Deexa Khanduri | November 6, 2018
Mastery for headmasters
Aditya Natraj (pictured here), the brain behind the Piramal Foundation for Educational Leadership (PFEL), says the core idea driving his institution is: headmasters and principals of government schools can be trained and motivated to become changemakers who vitalise their schools and bring them on par with private schools. So far, results in Jhunjhunu district have been promising.
Natraj, a chartered accountant, was well-settled in London. But when the earthquake struck Kutch, in Gujarat, in 2001, he joined Pratham, a voluntary group, to work in Kutch and manage nearly 300 volunteers to restart government schools after they were rebuilt. That was his first step into the voluntary sector. That was where he learnt his first lessons.
Kutch, India’s largest district, was a huge challenge. Teachers were mostly from other districts. When he began, villagers couldn’t volunteer to help. The men would be at work, and most of the women were illiterate. The district had the lowest literacy rate for women in the state. He recalls that they started by teaching volunteers soft skills.
Natraj also found startling inspiration. He met Saurabh Patel, a prinicpal at a school in remote Rapar in the district. When people were leaving the district after the earthquake, Patel, who is from south Gujarat, had chosen to get a transfer to the district to help its people after the quake. He had improved enrollment at the school and with the help of Unicef and NGOs obtained books and teaching equipment to keep the school going. Natraj says he asked Patel what motivated him, and he had said, “The government pays me for serving the nation and doing my job. The government needs me here, and here I am.”
For the next five years, Natraj worked with Pratham, travelling across the country. He says he observed that 60-70 percent of government officials and staff worked in consonance with the mood at government offices, 10-15 percent were lazy and corrupt, and another 10-15 percent were honest, highly motivated, and did exceptional work, like Patel, despite the low pay and bad policies. He said he decided it would be best to bank on the highly motivated.
Natraj says he realised that principals were managers, teachers, and social workers rolled into one. A principal has to stop thinking like a teacher and start thinking strategically, building and motivating a team to transform his vision into reality. Towards this, Natraj launched the Piramal Foundation for Educational Leadership, under the Piramal Foundation, in 2008 and put 81 principals through a workshop on how to manage schools, motivate teachers, make learning more interesting. Besides staff, there are Gandhi Fellows of the foundation recruited from colleges around the country who help principals in implementing their plans.
Natraj compares teachers from India with those of the US: in 37 out of 50 states of the US, teachers go to university to complete a masters in school leadership. Candidates can apply for a principal’s post only if they have five years’ teaching experience plus the masters. In India, he says, every field requires specialised training, but teachers and principals are expected to acquire the skills without passing any course. He also observes that the language of school management and administration, left by British rulers, reflects colonial attitudes of control, revenue collection, maintenance of a rigid system, the kind of language used in law, police work, etc. – transfer, monitor, inspect, suspend. But principals and teachers do not work best in those contexts.
He says he developed a curriculum the way IIMs developed it, starting out by training managers and then building a course case study by case study. After signing MoUs with government, the foundation would encourage principals to volunteer for the training. They were treated with respect and asked to share their experiences. Drawing on these, a course evolved. In 2013, the Piramal Leadership School was set up, offering the three-year principal leadership development programme. The school hopes to offer masters degrees soon, in the following specialisations: educational leadership, district education management, coaching for school improvement, instructional design, educational assessment and policy design.
Training at the school is said to have worked wonders – in attendees and in schools. Foundation staff say a headmaster’s wife came to them and asked, “What have you done to my husband? One day, we saw a child picking garbage and my husband went up to him and started speaking to him. He had never done that earlier. All that concerned him before the course was making money somehow.” Another headmaster burst into tears recounting how, for the first time in his 25 years at the school, a child held his arm and asked him not to go home but stay. Earlier, children would eagerly await his departure so that they could feel freer.
Natraj says the government should start looking at its teachers as social workers who are in touch with remote regions. By changing attitudes of people, they can heal all the caste, gender and communal strife facing the country. Natraj now plans to open a second PSL by 2020, near Jaipur, in partnership with the state government. Fourteen special courses are being planned for it.