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Public Education: PPP Blueprint

EducationWorld July 14 | Cover Story EducationWorld Magazine

In Kozhikode, Kerala “India’s most literate state” a tripartite public-private partnership between an MLA, municipal corporation and the Faizal & Shabana Foundation (estb. 2012) offers an inspirational model for the revival of India’s failing government schools

ONE OF THE GREAT paradoxes of post-independence India™s national development effort is the sustained neglect of 1.20 million government primary-secondary schools which dispense rock-bottom quality education to over 140 million of the country™s 230 million children who will be in school at the start of the new academic year this month. The consequence of continuous neglect of government schools defined by crumbling buildings, furniture-less classrooms, garbage-strewn compounds, filthy toilets and chronic teacher absenteeism, is that although public primary education is provided free of charge and in most cases with a free mid-day meal, 40 percent of the country™s  school-going children are in 200,000 ˜recognised™ private and estimated 400,000 officially unrecognised ” and technically illegal ” budget schools which have mushroomed in slums and backward communities in urban and rural India.

The people™s verdict is unambiguous: even households near the base of the country™s iniquitous socio-economic hierarchy ” and it™s pertinent to note that almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line ” prefer fees-levying private to free government schools for their children.

Behind these bewildering statistics is a story of continuous failure of successive governments at the Centre and in the states to develop India™s abundant human capital during the past 67 years since the country wrested political independence from foreign rule and began its tryst with destiny. The consequence of the education ” particularly public primary education ” blindspot is that currently one-fourth of the country™s people (over 300 million citizens) are comprehensively illiterate, and twice that number is at best functionally literate and a drag on the national development effort. Unsurprisingly on almost every parameter of national development ” learning outcomes, health, nutrition, productivity, infrastructure, per capita power consumption ” contemporary India is among the bottom-ranked in the comity of the world™s 195 nation states.

Logic and reason would dictate that the top priority of the grandiosely titled Union ministry of human resource development (HRD) at the Centre and the education ministries of India™s 29 state governments and five Union territories, should be improvement and upgradation of government schools. Instead, for the past six decades their efforts have been focused upon shackling the growth and proliferation of private schools, colleges and universities to prevent œcommercialisation of education, the bugbear of the establishment, the Supreme Court of India included.

Nowhere is the failure of the Indian state more tragic than in its failure to provide universal quality education to its children. A striking way of thinking about the quality crisis in government schools is to look at the flight to private schools and ask: ˜What does it say about the quality of the product (government schools), when you can™t even give it away for free?™ queried Dr. Karthik Murlidharan, professor of economics at the University of California, in an essay written for the Delhi-based journal Seminar way back in 2007.

Clearly unable to tackle the problems of government schools (from which 1 million relatively well-paid teachers countrywide are absent every day) over the past decade, the HRD ministry and the education establishment have hit upon the idea of transferring the burden of educating children from underprivileged households to private schools. Therefore when the historic Right to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 which belatedly made it incumbent upon the State (Central, state and/or local governments) to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the 6-14 age group was legislated, the recently ousted Congress-led UPA-II government made it mandatory for private schools to reserve 25 percent capacity in primary classes for children from certified poor households in their neighbourhood (s. 12 (1) (c)).

Surprisingly, despite having upheld the fundamental right of private edupreneurs to engage in the ˜occupation™ of education provision in the landmark T.M.A Pai Foundation (2002) and Inamdar & Ors vs. Union of India (2005) cases, when s.12 (1) (c) was challenged, the Supreme Court upheld this provision of the RTE Act. By somewhat strained logic, in Society for Unaided School of Rajasthan vs. Union of India (Writ Petition (c) No. 95 of 2010), a three-judge bench of the apex court (by a 2-1 majority) held that the constitutional Amendment (Article 15 (5)) which enabled the RTE Act, mandated that the State provides for the education of all children in the specified age group and not by it. However the court exempted boarding and minority schools from complying with s. 12 (1) (c), taking much of the wind out of the reservation provision. Since then with a large number of private, independent schools claiming minority status, this official attempt to pass on a substantial part of the State™s duty to provide qualitative free and compulsory education to the vast majority of the country™s underprivileged children, has been mired in confusion and litigation.

With the legislative initiative to pass on the State™s obligation to private schools having proved a damp squib, instead of making a determined effort to raise teaching-learning standards in government schools, the education establishment™s new focus is on promoting public-private partnerships (PPPs) in school education. Against the backdrop of accelerating exodus of children from under-performing government schools countrywide, state governments in particular are inviting philanthropists, edupreneurs and NGOs to invest time, money and expertise in reviving failing government schools. But although PPPs in primary school education have been in the air for almost a decade, the idea has not taken off in a big way.

“PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS in education are not visible except occasionally and as essentially philanthropic ventures. That™s because government is interested in running not-for-profit schools providing free-of-charge education, while private educators are driven by the profit motive. That™s why the few PPPs visible in education are actually philanthropic initiatives rather than partnerships. A completely new structure and framework which reconciles these divergent  objectives of both parties needs to be devised before PPPs can take off in a meaningful way, says Dr. R. Govinda, vice chancellor of the Delhi-based  National University of Educational Planning and Administration.
But even as a new structure ” perhaps on the lines of charter schools (in the US) under which the government pays proven private educators the sum it spends per student ” is being devised, a public-private partnership of great potential and promise prompting media headlines countrywide, has crystallised in Nadakkavu, a suburb of Kozhikode (formerly Calicut) in the southern littoral state of Kerala (pop. 35 million).

A joint venture of local MLA A. Pradeep Kumar, who, disgusted with the pathetic condition of government schools promoted a project christened PRISM (Promoting Regional Schools to International Standards through Multiple Interventions) in 2008, and the Dubai-based Faizal & Shabana Foundation, it has metamorphosed the all-girls Government Vocational Higher Secondary School, Nadakavvu (GVHSS-N) of the Kozhikode municipal corporation into Kerala™s most modern and well-equipped government class V-XII school in record time.

It’s always been a mystery to me why government which has established great institutions such as the IITs and IIMs, could not promote excellent schools despite better teacher pay scales. To make this happen, in 2008 I launched the PRISM project and with the help of Prof. Saji Gopinath of IIM-Kozhikode, formulated a plan to transform three municipal schools in my Kozhikode (North) constituency into international standard institutions. For this purpose, I invested Rs.1.5 crore of the Rs.6 crore that MLAs were granted by the previous state government for special projects and assets creation in their constituencies, to repair the crumbling GVHSS-N building and persuaded ISRO, Infosys and the state™s IT and science and technology department to contribute funds, multimedia equipment and a telescope to the school. But the superior infrastructure and new block of the school would not have been possible without the involvement of the Faizal & Shabana Foundation. Now in partnership with the foundation, we will upgrade and transform the two other schools in my constituency on the GVHSS-N model, says Pradeep Kumar, an economics graduate of Calicut University and two-term serving (Communist Party of India-Marxist) member of the Kerala legislative assembly.

The outcome of this innovative tripartite partnership between politician, municipal corporation and committed philanthropist is arguably the most well-furbished government school countrywide, equipped with eight fully-wired classrooms, four modern laboratories, 56 sparkling clean toilets, corporate-style kitchen and dining hall, a 13,000 sq.ft indoor stadium (with wood-floored basketball and badminton courts), spacious changing and locker rooms for students and a 18,110 sq. ft AstroTurf multipurpose playing field for athletics, football and hockey. To execute this dramatic transformation of a crumbling municipal school, the F&S Foundation commandeered the services of KEF Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd, a for-profit subsidiary of KEF Co engaged in the hi-tech offsite precast concrete technology business, to construct a new 45,000 sq. ft higher secondary block within 95 days, and landscape 132,000 sq. ft of the campus in another six months without disrupting the school timetable (total investment: Rs.16 crore).

“I AM SATISFIED WE have built world-class infrastructure for GVHSS-N in quick time and transformed it into Kerala’s best government school. It’s important for education institutions to provide students supportive infrastructure and environments conducive to learning, and I’m pleased the board exam results of children from this school have improved tremendously. It has received 1,200 admission applications against the 350 seats it offered this year. Philanthropy in India tends to be poorly organised. Therefore we have created a sustainable model for the growth and development of F&S Foundation by ensuring that 10 percent of the net profit of the four for-profit subsidiaries of KEF, Dubai, engaged in infrastructure, metals trading, real estate, agriculture and health services, will automatically accrue to the foundation. Moreover, the intellectual knowhow and expertise of group companies will be provided free of charge to the foundation. Through this we expect to grow the Rs.60 crore endowment corpus of the foundation by Rs.10 crore per year to Rs.100 crore by 2020, says Faizal E. Kottikollon, promoter-chairman of KEF Co Ltd, the apex level holding company of the group.

A civil engineering graduate of the Manipal Institute of Technology with an MBA from the T.A. Pai Management Institute (both in Manipal), and a Masters in industrial engineering from Bradley University, Illinois, Faizal and his wife Shabana ventured into social entrepreneurship by registering the  eponymous foundation in 2012.

Shabana Kottikollon, a psychology graduate of Mangalore University, vice chairperson of KEF Co. Ltd and managing trustee of the foundation, is equally enthused by the PPP which has enabled the quick transformation of GVHSS-N into Kerala™s most famous government school, and draws special comfort from the fact that it™s an all-girls school. œOf the over 40 percent of children who drop out of school before class VIII, the majority are girls. Therefore in the F&S Foundation, we pay special attention to best practices in education which support girl children, to enable and empower them to  contribute to national development, says Shabana.

There’s a strong probability the foundation™s ambitious plan to establish primary-secondary schools on the GVHSS-N model in all 14 districts of Kerala by 2016, and 100 across the state by 2020 will succeed, because behind the promotion of the F&S Foundation is an extraordinary story of focus, technological management, business acumen and entrepreneurial drive. Born into a successful business family of Kozhikode which promoted Peekay Steels ” Kerala™s largest steel manufacturing company ” after graduating from Bradley in 1991, Faizal worked for a year with Inductotherm Inc, USA, the world™s largest hi-tech steel furnaces manufacturing company, where he acquired strategic insights into new technologies which have transformed steel manufacturing. After returning to India and his marriage with Shabana in 1992, he worked in the family firm for two years.

My business management and American education planted the entrepreneurial bug in me. Therefore while on a holiday in the UAE in 1995, I started a scrap dealing firm with $5,000, recalls Faizal.

In 1996, discerning business opportunites in the booming oil and gas industry of the Middle East, he promoted ETC Oil Field Equipment, a firm trading in valves, stainless steel pipes and fittings, which quickly established business relationships with major oil corporates ” the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, Emirates National Oil Company, Qatar Petroleum, and Tyco International. In 1997, in a backward integration initiative, Faizal promoted the Emirates Techno Casting LLC in Ajman, UAE, which established the first state-of-the-art hi-tech foundry in the UAE with a capacity of 2,400 tonnes per annum to produce giant valves, pipes and aluminum used for cathodic protection in the offshore oil industry.  œBy 2007 when we expanded our operations to Sharjah, ETC had transformed into one of the world™s Top 3 integrated foundries manufacturing industrial valves for the oil, gas, and power companies worldwide, reminisces Faizal.

Inevitably the technological excellence and high profitability of ETC attracted the attention of investors in the UAE and beyond. In 2008  Dubai International Capital (DIC), the investment arm of Dubai Holdings, acquired 45 percent of the equity of KEF Holdings, the parent company of ETC for AED 465 million (Rs.760 crore). Three years later, the US-based Tyco International purchased a 75 percent stake in KEF Holdings (including the 45 percent equity stake of DIC) for $300 million (Rs.1,803 crore) and completely acquired KEF Holdings by purchasing the remaining 25 percent equity of the company for an additional $100 million (Rs.601 crore) the next year. In 2012 Faizal promoted the wholly-owned KEF Company Ltd in Dubai with a capital base of $500 million (Rs.3,005 crore) and the Faizal & Shabana Foundation with an endowment corpus of $10 million (Rs.60 crore).

QUITE PATENTLY, Faizal intends to apply his proven business development skills to grow KEF Co. Ltd into another billion dollar corporation, while simultaneously expanding the operations and reach of the F&S Foundation in the UAE and India. Immediately after it was registered, the foundation contributed $5 million (Rs.30 crore) to the endowment corpus of the American University of Sharjah and constructed a Rs.46 lakh hostel for tribal girls and orphan children in north Kerala, prior to developing GVHSS-N as a model public-private partnership school.

It’s important to note that the GVHSS-N model for upgrading government schools is not limited to infrastructure development. It includes teacher training given by the faculty of IIM-Kozhikode, and intensive workshops held every quarter to motivate and upskill the school™s teachers. Moreover, faltering children are given remedial education while special programmes have been developed to spur gifted students who also have the option to sign up for coaching classes to prepare for engineering, medical college and other competitive entrance exams. In addition, there’s a strong emphasis on physical fitness with facilities for children to play hockey, football, volleyball, basketball and/or sign up for karate and yoga classes. This holistic education is imparted free of charge with the government-provided free mid-day meal supplemented by the foundation, says Dr. Joseph Sebastian, an alum of the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and Kolhapur University, and former principal of the Yeshwantrao Chavan Institute of Social Sciences, Satara, Maharashtra, who acquired  over two decades of experience in social work activism (Project Concern International, Delhi  and Indo-Global Social Service Society, Delhi) before being appointed chief executive of the F&S Foundation last year.

The positive impact of the PPP between the state and municipal governments and the F&S Foundation is discernible in the unusual enthusiasm that government-appointed teachers ” who have a notorious reputation for absenteeism and slacking ” of GVHSS-N exhibit for their jobs.

The infrastructure of the school has changed beyond comparison. When I started teaching in GVHSS-N in 2007, the school had no kitchen, dining and washrooms, and toilets were an embarrassment. Now we not only have all these facilities, we also have excellent laboratories which makes teaching interesting and meaningful, says Jaloosh K, a zoology and education  postgrad of Calicut and Mysore universities with teaching experience in Bhutan and Eritrea, and currently biology teacher and principal of GVHSS-N higher secondary.

Mohammed Mustafa, a biomedical engineering graduate of the Cochin University of Science & Technology, and principal of the higher secondary vocational school of GVHSS-N, echoes this enthusiasm.œVocational education in higher secondary classes is a unique feature of school education in Kerala. In GVHSS-N, we offer a foundation course in English, physics, chemistry and maths, rounded off with training for biomedical engineering vocations ” medical lab, ECG and audiometric technicians and biomed equipment maintenance assistants etc ” which girl students prefer. Access to well-equipped laboratories gives our girls a great advantage in college entrance exams and the employment market. The PRISM programme has made all the difference and has given a lot of confidence and job satisfaction to teachers, says Mustafa.

WITH THE GVHSS-n public-private partnership attracting nationwide media headlines, and establishing F&S Foundation™s bona fides in India™s most literate state which routinely tops the national Education Development Index of NUEPA, Faizal is optimistic about attaining the foundation™s Mission 100 Schools objective of transforming 100 government  schools on the GVHSS-N model by 2020. œNow that we have demonstrated that it is possible to transform government schools into globally-benchmarked institutions with the involvement of all stakeholders, there is great enthusiasm among all MLAs cutting across party lines to upgrade and improve government schools in their constituencies. In this connection, it must be noted that we expect PTAs (parent-teacher associations) to raise 25 percent of the annual maintenance expenditure of each school. Thus with all stakeholders gradually assuming ownership of government schools, I believe it will be possible to replicate the GVHSS-N model countrywide. To encourage parental involvement, the new library of GVHSS-N which is under construction, will be open to the entire parents™ community and we are also ” in collaboration with music maestro A.R. Rahman” planning a new music academy which will be open to students of all schools. I am confident public education in India is on the threshold of a sea change, says Faizal.

The proven success of this PPP model which has transformed the hitherto unknown and no-hope GVHSS-N into perhaps India™s most famous government school in record time, offers India Inc ” which is now obliged to spend 2 percent of its average net profit of three years on CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects ” a good model to discharge this obligation. It also offers the country™s 156,000 dollar millionaires and several million high net worth individuals whose philanthropy suffers by global standards (India™s affluent classes donate a mere 0.3 percent of GDP for charitable causes compared to 1.8 percent in the US, 1 percent in the UK and 0.2 percent in China), a blueprint for reviving and upgrading failing education institutions.

Indeed it’s high time corporate India and the country™s affluent minority acknowledge that unless public/government education institutions  experience dramatic improvement in learning outcomes, India™s oft-proclaimed aspiration to emerge as a global superpower will remain a mere pipedream.

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