By Alison Bukhari and Maharshi Vaishnav of Educate Girls
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blogs written by the Educate Girls team and addressing key themes facing CEI innovators and their supporters: how to become an outcomes-focused organization, navigate the path to scale, tackle structural inequality, and help marginalized children get the education they deserve.]
January’s launch of the 2017 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) made for some concerning reading. Over 30,000 14-18 year olds across India were surveyed and assessed to understand their learning levels, abilities and aspirations. These young people are the first cohort to have ‘benefitted’ from India’s Right to Education (RTE) Act, enacted in 2010. They have experienced a no-detention, free and compulsory education for the last 8 years, but the 2017 ASER results show that they remain without basic literacy and numeracy competencies in place, and girls are faring the worst.
The RTE Act was no doubt a revolutionary step in the right direction. It has significantly reduced the population of out-of-school children across the country and has mainstreamed a sizeable portion of the most marginalized. Our team at Educate Girls has had a ringside view of the metamorphosis of the RTE Act and have leveraged it to the maximum extent while pursuing our program outcomes—namely enrolment of out of school girls, retention of enrolled girls in schools, improved life-skills for adolescent girls and remedial learning for children. We are a little older than the RTE, having celebrated our 10-year anniversary in December, and in that time have grown to a 1,500-strong team with over 11,500 community volunteers (watch a short video on our Team Balika). We have our ears to the ground and a core part of our work is listening and learning about the barriers that girls face in accessing and thriving in school.
Growing beyond activity-driven donor funding
Quite akin to the RTE, in our early years, we too were the beneficiaries of activity-driven donor funding. We won grants by committing to detailed activity plans, carefully costed and meticulously delivered. From early on we understood the importance of our results - what we were actually achieving - and we committed to rigorous monitoring and evaluation. But it took us awhile to evolve into an activities-agnostic, outcomes-focused organization. Over time, we pushed for more flexible funding, allowing us to pursue outcomes based on what we learned was and wasn’t working. In return we strove to give full transparency on our results.
The outcomes we are after include increased enrolment, retention, and learning levels. Originally, our core focus was bridging the access issue for girls in rural India—girls who were systematically excluded from school by parents or parents-in-law, girls discriminated against because of patriarchy and rigid social norms. We had been to the government and identified the districts in India with the worst gender gap in both access and literacy and decided that this is where we would work. Nine of the 26 worst districts with a critical gender gap at the primary education level at the time were all in Rajasthan. In these villages, a goat was considered an asset, and a girl, a liability.
We work at multiple levels: in the homes, the schools, the villages and the government offices across districts. Our work is underpinned by an exhaustive census-like door-to-door survey of every house in every village across a district so we have a highly accurate and recent list of out-of-school girls to work from. A list that generally varies dramatically from any government administrative data.
Over time, our focus has shifted to working in the classroom as well, recognizing the intrinsic link between a parent’s decision to send a girl to school, and the quality of education that is offered in that school. We now look not only at enrolment and retention but also the learning levels in Hindi, English and Maths of all the children, boys and girls, in grades three to five in the government schools where we work. As far as those outcomes go, to date we have enrolled over 200,000 girls, improved learning for over 650,000 children and over 4.9 million children have cumulatively benefitted with our interventions in schools.
The ‘double-edged sword’ of scaled expansion
Educate Girls’ approach is focused on those communities that still lag behind the rest of the country and our expansion to date had been implemented via a district-wide saturation approach, where we work in every village. Our assumption and experience is that behavior change will happen when everyone hears the messages rather than through pockets of excellence. We have identified priority districts across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and have ambitions to work with over 16 million children in the next 5 years.
With scale-up however, comes a huge responsibility to avoid a reduction in quality and not end up in a race to the bottom, competing for funding with an ever decreasing ‘cost per child’. Educate Girls is committed to maintaining genuine accountability to each and every child we work with. We work towards improved learning and retained access to education and have shifted our work away from counting activities and inputs to a transparent and rigorous approach to monitoring that focuses all our efforts on our outcomes. In fact, we have been experimenting over the last three years with delivering the world’s first Development Impact Bond (DIB)—through which we receive funding for outcomes, not activities. This comes at a cost, but it has been an illuminating and transformational journey. When we announce the final results later this year we will write more about this innovation in education funding.
Educate Girls has grown very intentionally over the last ten years. We have learnt what it takes to motivate community volunteers, change calcified mindsets, partner with the government, use data to inform our work and devolve decision making as close to the field as possible. At the heart of our success in scaling-up is our Team Balika (11,500 local volunteers, each with a personal story to tell), whether it is their struggle to get their own education, or the injustice they have witnessed when their sister was married aged 15. Working in their own villages, their mantra is “my village, my problem, my solution.”
Continuing the conversation on educating girls
Maharshi and I are excited to be writing this as an introduction to what we hope will be an interesting blog series. Over the next few months we will dig deeper into what we believe it takes to tackle the structural inequality, the systemic apathy and the intrinsic discrimination faced by girls in India’s villages and schools. We will discuss the challenges that come with scale, and the big question of who will and who should fund our commitment to give India’s girls an education worth having.