FOR MUCH OF LAST YEAR, I was addicted to Serial, a blockbuster podcast based on a real-life murder mystery, by American journalist Sarah Koenig. Koenig’s voice has an honest, likeable quality that draws you in (and pushes you to binge-listen). I was one of Serial’s 80 million downloaders. Vineet Nayar, former CEO of HCL, was another. “Serial made me discover the immersive power of audio all over again,” Nayar tells me at the Noida office of Sampark Foundation, which he started with wife Anupama in 2005. I nod enthusiastically in agreement. But while my interest in Serial was entirely recreational, Nayar drew inspiration from it to fuel his post-HCL calling: improving India’s decrepit government-run primary schools.
The walls of Nayar’s office are covered with framed articles from around the world applauding his ‘Employees First, Customers Second’ principle that spurred HCL’s transformation into one of India’s fastest-growing IT companies. He is a towering man with a booming voice, and I can’t help thinking he would make an excellent radio jockey himself. Except three years after giving up the corner office, Nayar is more interested in mimicking wild animals for seven-year-olds. While giving me a demo of the audio device he is banking on to change the face of sarkaari classrooms, he breaks into an elephant’s trumpet. On the device, a peppy voice narrates the story of The Foolish Lion, naming animals in English and then in Hindi, to the accompaniment of assorted jungle sounds. “Kids just love Sampark Didi,” Nayar says referring to the voice, which has become the mascot of the Sampark Smart Class programme.
Sampark Didi’s English lessons for students from Class I to Class V are a fixture in 5,000 government-run schools across Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir), Uttarakhand (Nayar’s home state), and Chhattisgarh. Nayar plans to scale that up to 50,000 schools—or 3 million children. There’s a separate device where Sampark Didi gives tips to teachers on making mathematics fun for kids, which is already at work in all 50,000. Apart from the device, Sampark supplies 2D and 3D learning tools, such as vocabulary charts, play money to teach calculations, and blocks to teach shapes. Everything is frugal—the device, for instance, is powered by a simple cellphone battery and can last a month on a single charge. “We are putting in Rs 650 crore of our personal money to fund this,” Nayar says. “But for maximum impact, we have to keep costs low. We want to contain annual costs per child within a dollar.”
The ultimate goal is to make a dent in the frighteningly bad standards of English and math learning at the primary level: According to the Annual Status of Education Report by the NGO Pratham, half of Class V students in India cannot read Class II-level text, and a similar number finishes eight years of schooling without learning basic arithmetic. Of the three states where Sampark runs the programme, students from two—Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh—are in the bottom five of the National Achievement Survey in both English and math. The problem is far worse in resource-starved government schools, where typically poor families send their kids, than in private schools.
Many government school teachers are undertrained and cannot deliver a good learning experience, leading to demotivated classrooms, Nayar says. While Sampark Didi removes the teacher’s communication challenges, kids know only the teacher can give them access to the tools. “Teachers suddenly feel empowered, and demotivation turns into motivation,” he explains. “A simple, one-factor change like this can unleash a huge transformation—I’ve already seen this with Employees First Customers Second.”
Research suggests audio can be a potent medium in contexts like Sampark’s. A study by the South African Institute for Distance Education says in developing countries, where specialists and cutting-edge equipment are scant and dropout rates are high, audio resources are often used as a teaching and curriculum reform tool with encouraging results. Sampark, which signs five-year memorandums of understanding with the states where it operates, audits learning outcomes every quarter directly with the chief minister. A government-administered survey of over 8,000 students before and after the programme shows pronounced improvements. On average, students in Class II in a Sampark Smart Class outperformed Class III students not covered by the programme. In both Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh, where the programme has been active for the past two years, the survey found a huge difference in the number of kids who can do basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication before and after the programme (see graphics).
Arti Jain, a lecturer who oversees teacher training at the District Institute for Education and Training (DIET) in Uttarakhand’s Nainital district, says there’s a “craze” for the programme among kids. “Sampark is playing a positive role in preventing children from abjectly poor families with no parental support from dropping out of school,” she says. “Children take the tools for toys—most of them have never seen toys. Gradually, they develop the habit to learn.”
On the face of it, Sampark’s arsenal is basic. But given the constituency they are meant for, urban, upper-class ideas of sophistication don’t hold. At a primary school in Nainital—dark, dank, and all of three rooms for five classes—I am shown how students use Sampark’s number line, a rope with round blocks to learn counting. Our photographer finds it difficult to shoot because there is no plug point. Talat Parveen, the head teacher, apologises for the conditions. She says she is paying out of her own pocket to employ two extra teachers, since enrolment has gone up but there are no funds to employ more hands. She is also paying for track suits for all the kids. “We don’t want them to feel that they are in any way inferior to the kids who go to private schools,” she says.
At a bigger school nearby, senior teacher Rana Rasheed introduces me to a child whose father is an alcoholic and mother works as a temple shoekeeper. “If we leave these kids at the mercy of their families, they will end up in streets begging, or as child labour,” she says, while watching over a batch of noisy students making triangles and squares using rubber bands on a plastic board with spikes. The mother of a student says her child doesn’t want to miss a single day of school, thanks to the government-mandated mid-day meals and classes becoming more fun. Sampark has firm instructions that children can only get their hands on the tools at school, away from the distractions at home. But there’s another reason the material can’t be sent home: Chronic poverty means families often sell everything that has any value, Rasheed says.
Our guide in these schools, Akram Siddiqui, is a 25-year-old social work postgraduate from Maulana Azad National Urdu University. He is a Sampark ‘Spark’, the name given to the foundation’s 100-odd ground staff whose job it is to mentor teachers and monitor progress. “Our biggest task is to support the teachers and keep their morale high,” Akram says.
It is easy to see why things can get demoralising, and why the government can be blamed for not doing enough. But Nayar reminds me that reforming education in India is a Herculean task, and impossible without government intervention. Sampark too has benefited from active government support. The day I visit the DIET at Nainital, nearly 30 ‘master trainers’ from the district are learning how to use the play money, under the supervision of Jain and a host of other enthusiastic education officials.
To ensure motivation levels stay high, Nayar says he won’t give Sampark Didi to private schools. “Teachers in our network tell us, ‘for the first time they [private schools] feel we have something that they don’t’. We want to keep it that way and bring the pride back to government schools.”
He is sanguine that other state governments will sign up (“Three million children equal 6 million votes”). But to make sure the chief minister takes time out every quarter so that the programme doesn’t fizzle, Nayar needs evangelists with “privileged relationships”—read business leaders with access. “I don’t need anyone to spend money. I am asking for time. To Reliance in Maharashtra, or to RPG in Bengal, I am saying take all this and run it in your states.”
Education is a fiercely competitive space in philanthropy. From the Mittals of Bharti Airtel to Nayar’s former boss and HCL founder Shiv Nadar, everyone believes their way is the best. Nayar doesn’t have patience for cynicism. “I am sure enough people will rally around the programme,” given its potential, he says. “If business leaders don’t take responsibility for fixing education, they will have to shell out more taxes to bridge the social inequity.” Now that’s sound logic.