“10 years ago, no one believed that Systemic Education Transformation was possible. Market-led solutions and approaches reigned the space. Back then if I would have tried to sell the theory of change to you, it wouldn’t have worked. It’s only through constant demonstrations that this idea can work, do people now trust that systemic transformation is attainable.” – Aditya Natraj, Founder, Kaivalya Education Foundation.
On December 17, in an attempt to learn more about the Key to Systemic Transformation, Mantra4Change and EduMentum hosted a Webinar with Mr. Natraj. Joined by our community of founders of early-stage organizations working in the space across the country, the interaction was quick to turn into a discourse where solutions and practices were shared based on experiences and learnings through the journey.
With over 15 years of experience in the space, Mr. Natraj has been one of the earliest proponents of the idea of systemic transformation. A chartered accountant, with an MBA; he moved to India in 2002, leaving his job at a start-up in London and has since been trying to improve public education in India. After working with Pratham for a short while, he founded Kaivalya Education Foundation which is known for its projects – The Gandhi Fellowship and the School Leadership Development Program.
His own tryst with the state of education came about while starting KEF when he saw that things were done a lot differently in this space than he had imagined. “I came from a consulting background and so spent a lot of my time in factories, tourism agencies, hotels etc. just trying to improve outputs and profitability of these companies. Slowly, one sees a pattern of what works best to improve the team or employees’ capabilities to deliver more value.”
“But when I came into education, I saw a completely different pattern. A lot of people were servicing children directly which was good. However, if there are currently 180 million children in the public education system, and 2 million are added every year, you can’t do anything unless you develop the system’s capabilities. Else, it becomes a leaky bucket,” Aditya said.
The concept of focusing on leadership development – what’s core to KEF’s work, came into play. Charting this journey from the SLDP, to the District Transformation Project and now to the State Transformation Project – KEF works with 3,000 district officers, 4,500 state-level leaders and in 50,000 schools.
“The learnings through this journey have led us to believe that there are people hidden within the system who are capable of driving change. Their capabilities must be amplified to improve the education system itself,” Aditya added.
“Going forward, in the next 5-10 years, we will be able to see a caterpillar to butterfly transformation in the country’s public education space.”
Structures Affect Behaviours
Among the audience that joined the hour-long Webinar, were members of two of our cohorts of EduMentum, who represent early stage organizations working in the area of systemic education transformation across geographies in India. Mr. Natraj’s conversation with some of these members delved into the operational challenges they face while executing their vision on the field.
Speaking to them, on the processes involved in spreading best practices from one school to a cluster of schools while working with government officials, Aditya said, “Carefully curating the community of practice is very crucial. This entails getting the right people on the table, asking them the right questions, facilitating in a manner that’s effective for them.”
“Structures affect behaviors. Asking ourselves, ‘how do we change the incentives for the people of the structure?’ is key. Sometimes it requires just waiting for the best officer or player to enter the cluster. This process can take 6 months or 18. But working towards it persistently and patiently can set the process on track,” he said.
Hire an entrepreneur, not an employee
A common challenge organizations in the development sector face is recruiting the top band of their team – the leadership team. Aditya recalled how the candidates he interviewed to recruit his first 7 staff, in turn, interviewed him.
“I was certain of one thing – I wanted entrepreneurs and not employees. During the interview, if I got the sense that the candidate was looking for structure and benefits like an employee, I would cut short the interview. If this person liked ambiguity and learning and navigating through the process, that was the kind I wanted on the team,” Aditya said.
Create Systemic Change Donors
It was time to visit the most popular subject of any non-profit organization – fundraising. While many organizations resort to various channels of fundraising, Aditya’s experience hasn’t only been different, but unconventional. Today, there are a number of channels willing to invest in the idea of systemic education but it wasn’t the case for Aditya, he recalled.
When Kaivalya began its journey, it had but just 3 funders in its first 5 years. “These 3 were first curious, then interested, and had finally become advocates of systemic change. Today, Kaivalya has a pool of funders who are deeply invested in the cause and I spent 20-25% of my time educating them. It’s not like there are ‘Systemic Change Donors’ – they need to be created,” he said.
The key to explaining about an organization, he added, was to stick to less than a minute and 4 sentences at best. “The potential donor has already made up his mind in the first 10 seconds. As an organization, you have to be able to solve for this and make your narrative concise yet effective,” Aditya added.
Cut the relearning time
“What helped my organization, me and the team more and ensured success was my own community of practice, comprised of 18-20 people. We can’t afford to keep relearning what others in our space have already learned. If one has used an approach and failed, he must be quick to inform the others about it so the same mistakes aren’t made again.”
Aditya said while elaborating on the limits and possibilities to scale an organization in his own experience.
“The community consists of peers – organizations the same age as yours and more established ones. Peers struggle with the same issues as you, while the latter has the experience to share. In your journey to grow your organization, you need a mix of both,” he added.
Design for Scale
The journey from 100 schools to 1000 wasn’t an easy one for KEF. After having close to nil outcomes in 3 years, the organization picked up and got outstanding results from its schools only in the 5th year.
Scale being the tricky achievement we all strive for – what, then, are the three top considerations one would keep in mind while designing for scale?
“If I have 10 teams with 7 people each, one person in each team would be responsible for interacting with government officials, another would interact with fellows, while the third may come with a pedagogy background. Each person in the team specializes and as an organization, you reintegrate this combination in your geographies,” Aditya explained.
“Having said this, refrain from standardizing between the 10 teams. What works best for one team in one geography may be the complete opposite for another team in another geography. An organization must adopt mass customization, instead,” he added.
No turning back
The need for Communities of Practice, especially for organizations stepping into the challenging yet rewarding world of Systemic Transformation, is profound. EduMentum’s constant effort is to create such communities where members of each organization support each other through this journey. From 6 organizations that joined the incubation program last year, to 17 of them today, we are a growing community of changemakers.
“While Kaivalya was being set up, I didn’t have an EduMentum or such platforms which allowed access to a larger network of experts and created communities of practice. 10 years ago, very few believed in the idea of systemic transformation. If today even 20 such organizations have come together, it’s truly commendable.” Aditya said.
After an hour of sharing his expertise with organizations who have just embarked on the journey to systemic transformation, Aditya had a message for us all – “We need Rahul Dravids, for he would wait for the distracted bowler, the favorable batting pitch and the ragged ball to take his winning shots! Patience and resilience are key for there’s no turning back from here. The children that we serve can’t afford to see us turn around.”
About the Webinar Series
As part of our mission to create well-informed, collaborative and co-creating Communities of Practice (COPs), Mantra4Change and EduMentum have begun the Webinar Series to bring experts and resources from the field of Systemic Education Transformation to the fore; and share their experiences with our young and growing partner organizations across India.
By Team Mantra4Change