In this article I will use NGO with the meaning of NPO (non-profit organization) as this refers to the regular usage in India.
Despite much progress on fighting illiteracy the Indian education system in Maharashtra is facing a lot of challenges. Especially the NGO driven schools need to not only handle social, but also economical and government obstacles. Even with all the effort spent by many dedicated trustees these schools can barely achieve their target of providing quality education for the poorest. The students who leave these schools will only have few more chances to jump over social barriers than students from government schools. This situation cannot be satisfying, neither for students, NGO trustees nor the state of Maharashtra.
This article is an outside view from my wife and myself as we spent half year as management consultants for one of these schools dealing with challenges and their possible solutions. This view is subjective as it is based on experiences we made in Maharashtra ourselves and discussions with many friends throughout India.
Challenges are significant, like the legal barriers for donations from abroad or the social dependencies of the schools from the communities which are the NGOs targeted scope.
Like all other business it starts and ends with good management – locally at the school and remotely on the trustee level. All other solutions for the obstacles are dependent on sufficient management support. They are not easy to implement, but not impossible either. This article describes some of them.
First of all, let’s make it very clear – India made tremendous progress during the last decades in fighting illiteracy. Coming from a level of literacy of 18% in 1951, it reached 74% in 2011 and it is still increasing. Even though you will still find a big gap between the male and female population, the discrepancy is getting smaller. The situation will improve even more when you look at the current generation of children at school age. Most of them are able to attend some kind of school – so the situation is likely to improve over time.
But the statistics show the challenges as well, that modern India has to tackle especially on the necessary speed for further improvements. In 2018 my wife and I spent nearly half year in a rural area in Maharashtra to support an NGO driven English Medium School as management consultants.
Our experience is a snapshot and cannot be extended to all other areas, maybe not even outside Maharashtra, but as we had the chance to talk to a lot of people during our stay we believe it may be good to voice an „outsiders view“ on the current challenges todays Indian education system is facing.
For this we need to discuss not only the challenges of each school type but some background issues, which are the root cause for some of these challenges. We will discuss English as the language of Indian middle class as well as the different school types. Based on the challenges we were observing, I will propose different actions, which could be focused on.
1. The importance of English
The modern India struggles, in some areas of social life very much with the colonial history. The social discourse in newspapers handles many aspects of what happened with Indian culture during the time of the British Empire. One of the major topics, of course, is language.
Despite the fact that Hindi is spoken by more people than English it is evident that English is the language of the middle and upper class in India. It may be embarrassing from an Indian point of view,but it is fact, that India’s growth over the last years is highly dependent on its status as a workbench for the world.
For middle and upper class the English language is therefore an easy symbol of social elevation which these social parts of India have experienced throughout the last few decades. This has a major impact on the school system. The social indicator for the middle class is a good knowledge of the English language – schooling needs to support this with semi-English (some subjects after 5th standard are taught in English) or English schools (all subjects are taught in English).
2. Social differentiation by school types
The school system, specifically in Maharashtra, consists of three different general school types:
- Government schools
- Profit oriented private schools
- Non-profit oriented private schools
They all have different specifics which will be discussed in the next paragraphs.
2.1 Characteristics of government schools
Government schools can nowadays be found in different sizes, in many places, even in rural areas. They are mainly driven by local trusts (usually the land owner of the school location). These trusts receive some reimbursement for the infrastructure (which is mainly adequate) and some additional money for teacher salaries.
Attendance for the students is free of charge, they get school uniform for free. Sizes of the schools vary from very small village schools to bigger ones with hundreds and even more students. A Teachers salary starts with ₹ 6000, after three years it is increased to ₹ 25.000. As like many other government jobs, which promise long term salary for the employees, these positions are subject to corruption. The Indian government tries to fight against this with strong entry level exams but could not solve this issue over the last years. It is still present, at least in the places we visited.
The teaching style in the schools is very much from the front. Sometimes the students are still beaten with a stick, new methodologies cannot be found, classes are big and noisy. English is taught as a foreign language, but not with a specific focus. As India is a multi-language country, with many local languages the main focus in government schools is Hindi alongside the local language..
Students who leave the government schools have basic knowledge and they are literate in the local and Hindi language. They do not have usable English knowledge and thus, based on the characteristics of Indian society, they will spend a life as workers for the middle and upper class.
2.2. Characteristics of profit oriented private schools
The popularity of commercial private schools has increased over the last years in Maharashtra. They usually provide a wide range of quality dependant on yearly school fees paid. The fees vary from ₹ 15000 to ₹ 100000. Generally you should expect the teachers salary to be paid according to the school fees (for example: with yearly school fee of ₹ 6000 comes monthly teachers salary of ₹ 6000). But this does not apply for higher school fees eg. ₹ 100000 – in this case the salary for teachers would be much less – the remainder result is pure profit for the trust, which would be high for the quality schools.
The quality of these schools is usually better than that of government schools. Methodologies are modern. The higher the school fees the closer the link to some American syllabi.The schools are at the very least semi English, the better ones are English medium schools. Usually the schools plan a lot of activities, the better ones teach subjects like “robotics” and “creativity”.
Some of the semi English schools have an “old” status and are supported by government – they can provide the education without any school fee. But these schools are special cases – the intention of the Indian government is to reduce these schools – currently no further approvals are provided for them. The students leaving private schools have a good to very good knowledge. Spoken and written English is good to excellent.
But the discussions, even in middle class families, are now mainly about the education of the children. Family decisions are made based on affordability of education (no longer affordability of marriage) – this means “one child is enough, we cannot afford a good education for more”.
As a result the children of families who can afford more will get better education and will most likely join the middle or upper class later in life. The system of profit oriented private schools supports very much a further social differentiation. Children of wealthy families will have many more chances in their life, while the kids of poorer families will not.
The Indian and the state government tried to improve this situation with a 25% rule (each school has to give 25% of seats to non wealthy families and government covers some of the costs) – but as the whole procedure for reimbursement is very bureaucratic, the schools do not have any interest in supporting families making use of their rights. Therefor the ratio at every school is far below the 25% and will likely not increase further.
2.3. Characteristics of NGO driven schools
NGO driven schools in Maharashtra are usually English medium or semi English schools. They manage their financials based on donations. Nevertheless, they cannot survive without school fees, which are usually between ₹ 5000 and ₹ 15000. Teachers salary is around ₹ 6000. The 25% rule applies to these schools as well – and similarly – the low interest of the school to battle with bureaucracy.
Sometimes you will find a supporting family taking over all financial losses of the school – in our case the founder of the school spends all his savings on the school. With his pension he covers running losses. What he cannot cover, his family will finally take over. The quality at these schools cannot be much better than on government schools.
You will find the same methodologies as in government schools, no further activities after school and no education quality management. What you can expect is better English – but, as the methodology is old (no language lab, no conversation training) and the language level of the teachers is not sufficient, the result of the English education is not adequate either. It supports only a very limited subset of students. This means, that only a small percentage of students will eventually have the chance to advance to a better social level.
Nevertheless – to run these schools the effort for donors and NGO is high. In most cases you will find these schools in areas where the percentage of social underprivileged students is high. This increases immediate problems, which are not easy to solve. Most families are not in a position to pay even the low school fees on time.
As a result the salary for teachers cannot be paid on time which raises further problems. The NGO driven schools toughest challenge is the balance between their initial target (good education for the social disadvantaged) their financials and the environmental factors. This challenge and possible solutions need to be discussed in detail. Some of them might be valid even outside Maharashtra in other Indian states.
3. Resulting challenges for non-profit oriented schools in rural places
3.1. Financial challenges
3.1.1. Fees not paid in time: economic cause or bad payment behaviour
Even though the fees are not high compared to other non-government schools receiving the fees on time it is a major problem. It is possible to assign the late payers into one of the two categories: lazy payers and economic late payers.
The economic late payers have a major problem paying based on their economic disadvantages. But these families are exactly the target group for NGOs – for these families the schools are founded. Therefor the economic late payers do not receive much pressure from the NGOs.
The lazy payers should be easy to be handle – just let them go. This should specifically be the case when they did not pay for the whole year. But based on the environmental social factors (in the village everyone knows each other), sometimes even blackmailing (“I will tell bad stories about your school if you send my kid home”) the lazy payers, at our school, were not treated as they should have been. They were allowed to stay.
In our case at the end of the school year 20% of the school fees were not yet paid by parents. To receive the other 80% it took long fights with the parents. As a result. in our case, the salary of the teachers could not be paid for 3 months. Necessary maintenance or smaller investments could not be covered.
3.1.2. Fees not sufficient to cover costs
NGOs have the best knowledge about the level of possible payments for school fees by targeted families. The challenge for them is to find the balance between their needs and what can be afforded by these families.
As a result NGO driven schools tend to limit the expected school fees to the lowest possible level, which implies it will be below their own needs. To cover the financial needs for the schools they will always be dependent on external donations (outside NGO members) or internal donations (from NGO members) to cover running costs and investments.
3.2. Resource challenges
3.2.1. On-going competition with government schools for the best teachers
As the salary discrepancy between NGO driven and government schools are huge the intention of nearly all teachers in the rural areas is, to get a job at a government school. This is their biggest dream – they will apply again and again, participating in all necessary exams. The best teachers will leave for government schools (if they can afford the necessary money for the bribes).
Long term resource planning is not possible. The best teachers will not stay – even though you need them for the better quality of education. This has special impact on the management of the schools. It is already hard to find good teachers, ones who will also stay longer.
Even more difficult is to find people who are able to manage and run the schools locally. You will find people who help you survive, but not people to run the school according to the NGO targets.
3.2.2. Level of education for the teachers not sufficient (methodology, English language)
All the teachers we met have at least a “Bachelor of Education”. The experience for us was nevertheless that a degree is not sufficient to teach at an English medium school. Despite the fact that we found all teachers very much dedicated this could not cover significant knowledge gaps in methodology, language and even some practical knowledge. Only in a very few cases did we observe a correct lesson preparation based on the teaching needs.
The root cause is quite clear for this. Most of the teachers grew up in the same social environment. They never made experiences outside their local boundaries. They don’t have the chance to acquire intellectual triggers from outside. Nevertheless we found teachers who worked really hard, from childhood onwards, to move beyond the intellectual boundaries of their environment, starting to read on their own, learning English on their own. But without help from outside these teachers will not have the chance to develop their own skills further.
3.2.3. Salary on the lowest possible level – sometimes in contradiction with second job (on farm)
Salary for the teachers is on a very low level. It is sufficient to survive, but not sufficient for any further personal improvement. It is not sufficient to take care of a large family. We visited teachers at home and found them living under very challenging conditions. Even marriage becomes a problem, especially for male teachers, as only few parents will give their daughter away into these conditions in rural places.
Therefor a lot of teachers have a second job – usually on their parents farm. Sometimes they own a small farm and try to handle both jobs in tandem. But in conflict situations the school never wins. As a result the teachers will often be late, take days off or leave early.
This does not mean that they are not dedicated. It means, they cannot handle the balance between both their jobs. This again has a negative impact on the quality of education. Even short term resource planning is not possible as staff priorities are not always with the school.
3.3. Structural challenges
3.3.1. FCRA registration has negative impact on donations
Indian government requests a registration at FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) for any transfer of donations from outside the country. The communicated cause for this is the reduction of risk of any terror funding. Even though the target might be clear it produces some collateral damages.
The FCRA registration is very complex. It created a new business of FCRA consultants who should support the respective NGOs in gaining this registration. Nevertheless – no NGO we asked, could gain this registration so far. It may be only possible for very large NGOs, but this could not be verified by us at this point. As a result for all the small NGOs (like NGOs which drive schools in rural places) external donations are no longer possible.
We tried to transfer some money – which was rejected by the bank and reverted back to us. Referring to the above-mentioned challenge, that the fees would not be sufficient to cover the costs, only internal donations will remain as financial coverage. This increases the pressure on the NGO drastically.
3.3.2. Complex trustee structure
The history of most NGOs is that a few people, with the same interest, started some activities and legally established them by registration of an NGO. In cases of supporting NGOs for schools it means that the founders need to maintain the same interests over a long time especially with all the financial pressure they will have.
It should be expected that at least some of the trustees belong or belonged to the targeted social structure. This results in social pressure to some trustees while others will look at it from a very rational point of view. It will be hard to find the balance between these trustees. This is even more the case if there are family relations between the trustees.
The responsibility is often shared and not hierarchical which makes it hard to take decisions. An easier way would be a strict hierarchy or strict financial rules which should be given to the NGO to avoid social conflicts.
3.3.3. Trustees not at local side
In India, as well as in other developed countries, rural exodus runs alongside economic prosperity. The money is in the cities. The big companies and all the chances are in the economic hubs. Social development in the cities has left the development in the rural places decades behind.
We cannot discuss the general implications of this exodus here, but a notable result is that the trustees usually are in the cities and not at the rural places. They will have the money to support the schools, as the economic situation in the cities is much better. Slowly they will then drift away from rural life. The next generation already has problems interacting with rural people, especially when there is a need to change things with impacts on the rural social structure. The following generation will have an increased problem.
The schools will run autarkic with only minimum level of external controls – the trustees are not able to take control over the school management if the locals are resistant to change.
3.3.4. Networking not established
In general we did not find a well-established network of information exchange in rural places. It works on a very local level as long as relatives are involved. Relations to other NGO driven schools are not well established, this will not change as long as no direct personal relationships support this interaction.
In some cases the schools define each other as a competitor rather than supporter. Reason for this is obviously the financial situation. As long as the financial situation is critical you will reach for each and every straw to survive. But the aforementioned distance between NGO and school hinders the local networking as well.
The trustees usually cannot maintain a network on the rural site and therefore not support the teachers. Local Management does not have the quality to set up or maintain a network with other schools apart from their personal network. This means the schools miss out on a significant chance of support by other schools, even by private schools.
As an example, in our case teachers were sent for training to the city, were the trustees live (a once in a year activity), rather than to a possible closer option (which would be needed for more often training).
3.3.5. Rural places far away for donor visits and volunteering
The distance of rural places from the economic spots brings other drawbacks which should not be underestimated. Facing the situation that you are dependent on donations and volunteers to cover financials needs, you need to be able to bring donors on to the NGOs site. Virtual involvement will never be as effective as direct involvement., in particular if it is the only form of involvement.
NGOs need more support from volunteers, especially in cases when external donations are not possible (see the FCRA topic). Based on the distances to cities this will not be easy to organise. Short term volunteering will not work as the effort to organise transport and travel exceeds the achieved impact by far.
Only mid-term and long-term volunteering will have an effect – which are hard to organise as well. In our case we tried to organise a medical check-up for the children through short-term volunteering, which did not work because of the challenges of traveling for the volunteers.
3.4. Environmental challenges
3.4.1. Significant more effort for maintenance as many materials can only be bought in cities
It is difficult to buy items for daily office use in rural places. Things like lamination pouches or soft boards are not easy to find. In most cases you have to organize some kind of delivery from bigger cities as most of other delivery services like “Amazon” are not very reliable in rural places (Parcels are dropped at the nearest courier service location, which can be 40km away or they are simply not delivered).
Organising the delivery means: you ask someone in the city to buy the items; they bring it to a local bus service; you will be there when the bus arrives; if you miss it, you try to catch the driver at home. Things like this happened in our case. Maintenance for the school infrastructure is complex, because specific services are only available in the cities.
Even asking an electrician or plumber for some minor adjustment sometimes turns into a nightmare. The required resources are just not available on the rural site and improvisation is needed.
3.4.2. Social environment, especially in rural places
The social development in rural places is far behind other places in India. You find local, male dominated communities in the villages. Women have very few rights. They usually stay at home and need permission to go to work from the head of the family (usually the father of the husband). In some villages women are not even allowed to go to the village by themselves. They spend their life outside on a farm, caring for children, cooking and farming. They don’t have anyone to talk to apart from their closest relatives who live with them. This has several impacts on the school.
The first impact is: finding the teachers. It is hard to find female educated teachers from the village, who are allowed to teach and who can come regularly to school on their own. The attendance by elder male family relatives has of course not only socially controlling aspect, but also assures protection against sexual violence as well. But it seems, that women from cities, who teach at the school too, do not need this kind of protection. Hard to judge, how much is social control and how much is protection.
The second impact is: missing support by parents for the school. The NGO schools, with their limited resources, are dependent on any supporting activities by the parents. As long as one part of the society, like women, cannot represent the family they will rarely take action to support school activities.
3.4.3. Hierarchical thinking
India, especially in rural places, is very hierarchical – not only in daily life but in any kind of business. The usual behaviour therefor is to do exactly what you are told to do by your superior. It might make sense or not. This smothers any employee initiative, which should be promoted rather than the other way around.
For us as foreigners it was sometimes very hard to observe the missing attitude to think beyond what you know.It will take a long time to change this. The strict focus on hierarchy is not helpful in areas were resources are limited and each and every extra idea and initiative is needed.
3.4.4. Self-motivation is low in rural places
The self-motivation in the rural places (we visited is low. In most cases it needs significant external triggers to get things moving. We could not identify the root cause for this – if this is general behaviour or if it is dependent on salary or other factors.
Of course it makes an impact if people earn only low amounts of money. How can they evaluate their own value of work if no other soft factor supports this evaluation?
But salary cannot be the only cause. We observed cases when we tried to employ local people for some maintenance work with good payment. They just did not show up – multiple times. At the beginning we thought, it might be a communication problem, but we were told that this was general behaviour in the village. As an example: we tried to get a rope fixed to the wall of the building – we needed to drill a hole for this. The village had one guy with a drill who did not show up, for no apparent reason. We were simply left waiting until we lost patience and bought the second drill for the village. We then trained the teachers how to work with it. This did improve the situation in this very specific example.
But situations like this happened several times. In most cases we did not find the workers employed somewhere else but sitting and chatting with other men at the village market.
4. What kind of actions would improve the situation
4.1. For the government
4.1.1. Ease and speed up the FCRA registration for NGOs
The NGO driven schools depend on financial support, which cannot be provided solely by the people living in India. There are many supporters all over the world, e.g. the Indian community in US and GB, who would like to donate but cannot do so because of the registration.
Every NGO, running a school, should be able to complete the FCRA registration within one month, this means the process needs to be simplified.
4.1.2. Limit the ability for generating business through education
The government should not withdraw from education as one of the core responsibilities.
To tackle the root cause of the problems in the Indian educational system, we propose the prohibition or limitation of profit generation through education, at least until secondary school level. Different options are possible.
One option is an extra tax for private schools. This should be used to fund minimum wages for all teachers of all school types. Another option is, that private schools reduce their profit through a predefined income cap by direct donation to NGO driven schools.
The result of profit prohibition in education will be, that the current providers will withdraw from this business. There is a high risk that the quality of education will then decrease. To avoid this situation, it needs a proper implementation plan.
4.1.3. Enforce a unified syllabus all over India
Syllabus for all school types must be the same. Students from government schools should finish with the same knowledge as children from private schools.
4.2. For the trustees
4.2.1. Establish the best local management
Reliable local management is the key for running any endeavour. This is even more valid in challenging environments.
The funding needs to reflect this importance.
In our case we didn’t find enough qualified local management. It resulted in significant lack of management controls and in quality issues. It took significant effort to improve this situation step by step.
4.2.2. Establish an efficient trustee structure with clear responsibilities
The line of direction to manage the school from outside should be simple and clear, otherwise it blocks decisions and goals cannot be achieved. Responsibilities should not be shared. The RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) concept for assigning responsibilities to roles is well known in business and can easily be used for NGOs as well.
4.2.3. Restrict the scope
Limited resources increase the pressure on strict scope management. The scope has to refer to:
- available resources
- expected quality
- available infrastructure
In our case we reduced the scope from classes 1-10 to classes 1-5. This improved the funding as well as the quality of the education.
4.2.4. Enforce remote controls
Even the best local management needs guidance and control. The trustees mainly stay remote. Enforcement of remote controls ensures proper management for the NGO.
Successfully implemented management instruments can be utilised from other areas of business. Examples for remote controls are:
- Regular conference calls with setup agenda
- Cloud data storage
- Office tools
- Fingerprint for time management
- Common standards and specific rules
If the NGO cannot setup these management controls, it will fail in the long term.
4.2.5. Focus on HR management
NGO driven schools typically do not have the financial capabilities for HR management based on hard factors like salary. More effort needs to be put on the soft factors such as:
- transparent, individual and honest feedback
- transparency in decision making
- involvement of the employees in decisions
- performance based salary adjustments
- regular further qualification and training for the teachers
- assignment of specified responsibilities
- regular appreciation
- team building activities like outings
4.2.6. Enable long term financial management
NGO driven schools just try to survive from year to year. This is not sufficient to achieve stability in education. The NGO should have at least secure funding for one year and a financial plan for another year.
If this cannot be achieved, the scope must be adjusted.
Accountability for this plan is with the NGO.
4.2.7. Focus on self-marketing
Self-marketing is crucial. Since fundraising has been professionalised, all possible social media channels should be actively used.
To improve the visibility to donors, the NGOs need to put significant effort into regular and professional information sharing. This is even more important when the financial capabilities are low. There is no better way to acquire donors, employees or volunteers.
4.2.8. Enforce clear rules in the social community
Rules are as important as the enforcement of them. Following examples give an overview:
- when to pay fee
- consequences if fee was not paid on time
- which support is required from parents
- school schedule and punctuality
- regular office hours
- regular parents’ meetings and home visits
4.2.9. Establish transparent donation system
The donation system is the core for the support of the NGO. Therefore it has to follow a few requirements:
- Transparency for the donors
- show, what happens with the donated money
- separation between investment and running costs
- easy to use, connected through social media channels
- flexible payment gateways
- specified fee donations as sponsorships for students in need
Maharashtra has to decide which way to follow. Should there be further separation of social classes or should there be democracy in education with equal chances for all.
We found a lot of very dedicated people all over the country, who would like to support the further development of India. They all agreed on three priorities:
- The government has to strongly support the NGOs
- The schools need very good local management
- The NGO needs clear and simple management
It begins and ends with the management. If this does not fit the extraordinary challenges all effort will fail.
We hope that our observations and suggestions will have an impact on local and national political discussions.