Introduction

The Spark Group is an idea incubator and delivery platform targeted towards the development of India at the grassroot level. Using insights from extensive academic research as a foundation, the enterprise envisages developing ideas and incubating these ideas into commercially viable business ventures aimed towards effective and efficient service delivery at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’. Our areas of focus are: education, microfinance, health care and livelihood. Currently, we are working on the following projects:

  • Spark Gaurav: India’s first school accreditation service
  • Spark Guru: India’s first teacher certification service
  • Spark Abhiyaan: Education investment and venture funding
  • Spark Amulya: Innovative technology solutions for microfinance
  • Others: FINO

Web Site: www.thesparkgroup.net

ICT has huge role in attracting children: Azim Premji

Azim Premji shared this thoughts on ICT in education in The Economic Times. An excerpt:

One of the few things on which there is consensus across the entire ideological spectrum in economics and politics is that literacy and education are perhaps the most significant drivers of development and democracy. For societies to improve their literacy levels and the quality of their education, multiple complex factors must be worked upon. Information and communication technology (ICT) can facilitate improvement on several of these dimensions. To me, use of ICT for literacy is almost intuitive, given the challenge of reaching out to large numbers which a country like India faces. ICT provides us an effective tool for connecting with a large number of remotely located learners at a low cost.

My perspective on the use of ICT for education and literacy is based on our interaction with the parents and schools in over 1,300 villages in 2000, through the Azim Premji Foundation. Through these interactions we gained the following perspective: Parental feedback indicates strong demand for computers; they also consider computer interface as an enabler for knowing English; ICT can strengthen our efforts for universalising primary education and; ICT could also be the solution to a uniform high quality of instructions without replacing teachers. But more than that, we learnt that ICT also has a huge role in attracting children to the school, and creating excitement in and around the school.

Continue reading “ICT has huge role in attracting children”

Spark in the Khaleej Times

Spark has been featured in the Khaleej Times

Of small schools and small dollars
By Rahul Goswami (BUSINESS WITH HEART)

An extract:

“Education is indeed a service like any of a very large variety of goods and services provided very efficiently by the market. When we say that markets work it is just as applicable to the provision of education.

For instance, The Spark Group, founded by entrepreneurs from MIT, is creating a branded chain of low-cost schools across India. The schools will be owned and operated by private entrepreneurs. Spark hopes to maximise outcomes of the initiative by harnessing the power of grassroots entrepreneurship.

The model will be to provide a ready-to-run package that comes with everything required to start and operate a low-end school – from curriculum to fee schedule to infrastructure design.

The Spark Group’s plan is to take the entrepreneur from “ink on the contract” to “chalk on the board” in three months. This chain of schools will be adapted for local needs — and yet be integrated under one brand that will be instantly recognised by every poor family in India.

Backed by rigorous academic research from Harvard and MIT, Spark plans to make sustainable investments in schools by providing much-needed resources and value-added services.”

Spark at Ramoji Film City

Spark took a break 🙂 to visit Ramoji Film City on June 20 (Sunday!)

In pic(from left): Nitin, Raman, Aman, Shailesh, Pratham, Sunny, Satyajeet & Asiem

Spark @ Ramoji Film City

Round Table on Innovations in Education

Round Table on Innovation in Education

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public organised a Round Table on Innovations in Education in Hyderabad on June 23, 2007. The Round Table had participants from Ashoka and the Ashoka Fellowship, the Spark Group, the IFMR Trust and ICICI (a key investor in the IFMR Trust and NE Fund). The main objectives of the Round Table were to identify innovative models in education that use sustainable approaches to deliver maximum social impact, to seek out potential partnership opportunities for SPARK and fellows and to identify potential investment opportunities for SPARK/NE Fund.

Links to Photos:

Presentation on Initiatives of The Spark Group

Lisa Heydlauff: Be! An Entrepreneur

Group Discussion to explore innovative models

Balaji (AID) summarizes the next steps

 

The event began with presentations on initiatives at Ashoka and The Spark Group. After this, each Ashoka Fellow made a presentation on the work they have done. In the second half, there were 2 group discussions – to understand the major constraints to commercial solutions operating at large scale for low income markets, and to propose collaborative solutions. Read the rest of this entry »

Change Looms: Promoting Youth Leadership for Social Change

We are delighted to be selected as a finalist for the AshokaPravah Change Looms program.

CHANGE LOOMS is a program that recognizes, encourages and supports the exceptional achievements of young people who are actively promoting social change in society. It provides in-depth capacity building, mentoring from leading social entrepreneurs across the country, acknowledgement at a public event, and a grant of Rs. 40,000 for outstanding initiatives.

The Change Looms Award is supported by The Youth and Civil Society Initiative of Sir Ratan Tata Trust.

Spark Survey Findings

Launching the Spark Guru service, The Spark Group conducted a survey amongst students of class 8, 9 and 10. The purpose behind this survey was to understand their interests – and how Spark could improve the quality of education at schools.

We came up with some interesting findings:

  1. Almost all the students (96.7%) feel that they could do better if they get a good Mathematics teacher.
  2. 43.47% students consider Mathematics as their favorite subject.
  3. Only 13.07% students don’t find Mathematics interesting.
  4. A very large section of students (76.8%) like Geometry.
  5. 40.5% students hate languages (Hindi/Telugu) being taught as subjects.

One thing which is pretty clear from the above data is that in the historic land of “Aryabhatta” and “Bhaskaracharya” the passion for Mathematics hasn’t gone down a single bit. So we can expect many more great Mathematicians coming our way.

The keen interest in Geometry suggests that students learn things faster if they are able to visualize them. This can be a lesson for the teachers while teaching other topics as well. The survey reveals that students do not like studying languages such as Hindi and Telugu.

One of the most alarming findings of the survey is the discontent of the students with the standard of teaching. This is where Spark endeavors to bring quality education back to where it belongs – in the classroom.

Battle Over Math in New Jersey Drives Off a New Schools Chief

Parents, some involved in a campaign against the math teaching in the highly regarded Ridgewood, N.J., school district, were to have met the new superintendent at a reception last Monday night.

But the reception was abruptly canceled, leaving the school board president to explain that the superintendent, scheduled to begin on July 1 after a nine-month search costing more than $20,000, had backed out, largely because of the escalating math fight.In a statement expressing disappointment, the five-member school board said the recruit, Martin Brooks, had been made to feel unwelcome by “anonymous phone calls, e-mail messages, blogs and Web postings by some community members” that “questioned his integrity, ethics and educational philosophy.”

Continue reading “Battle Over Math in New Jersey Drives Off a New Schools Chief”

‘Super 30’ shine again

Times of India | May 31

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Education/Super_30_shine_again/articleshow/2087896.cms

Economically and socially backward, they were called ‘Super 30’ since the day they were chosen to be coached to crack IIT-JEE. And wow, they proved they are worth the name with 28 of them making it to IITs while the remaining two – both Dalits – expected to sail through once the results of SC/ST aspirants are out.

It was five years ago that Anand Kumar, a local Maths wizard, along with a senior Bihar IPS officer Abhayanand floated the concept of ‘Super 30’. Thirty promising, albeit poor, IIT aspirants were selected and coached rigorously for eight months ahead of JEE in 2003. Eighteen of them cracked the test. In 2004, 22 of the 30 came out with flying colours. The number of successful candidates increased to 26 in 2005 and 28 in 2006.

“This year we hope to achieve 100 per cent results,” a jubilant Kumar, whose coaching institute in Patna sponsors the 30 aspirants, said and added Alok Kumar and Azad Kumar, the two Dalit aspirants whose names do not figure in the list of successful candidates, will certainly make it when the preparatory results of SC/ST candidates come out. Ten of the ‘Super 30’ aspirants have secured ranks among the top 1,000 successful candidates.

Parents seek school webcam links

BBC News | June 6

Some parents would like a webcam link to their child’s classroom to follow their progress, a study suggests.
One in four adults in a poll of 2,000 for the services website, Directgov, said they wanted an online alert if their child did not turn up for school.

In focus groups linked to a study on the future of online services, some parents even said they wanted transmitters fitted to their children.

The government said the findings showed people wanted to be more involved.

Continue reading “Parents seek school webcam links”

Corruption Damaging Education

BBC News | June 7

Bribery and corruption damage universities and schools across the world, according to a report for the UN’s education wing, Unesco.

The study says education is plagued by rigged tendering processes, academic fraud and bribes over places and posts.

Academic fraud, such as fake degrees, is more common in the United States than in developing countries, it says.

The study of more than 60 countries says that in some, illegal use of funds meant for schools can be very high.

Continue reading “Corruption Damaging Education”

Girls do badly at math when told boys better: study

By Belinda Goldsmith

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) – Telling girls that boys are better than they are at mathematics can irritate them so much that it negatively impacts their performance, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers from three U.S. universities found that the threat of stereotypes could create worries that undermined the women’s short-term memory system needed for problem solving

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The Times Of India: Now, parents have to carry bagful of money

The Times of India, Hyderabad | 9 May, 2007 | Mridula Chunduri

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/2016009.cms

While the government is yet to come up with a mechanism to regulate the fee structure in private schools in the state, the schools are making the most of this lean period and earning a quick buck in the form of hiked fee.

The Hindu: Students’ performance in Math remain grim

The Hindu
January 9, 2007

http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/001200701090311.htm

The survey conducted by an NGO, Pratham, in which students were tested on arithmetic, writing, reading and comprehension, showed that about 60 per cent of students at Standard I and II could recognise numbers or do more mathematics. At Standard 3 to 5, only 65 per cent of the students could do subtraction.

Spark Guru Launched

Our first service offering, Spark Guru, was launched in Hyderabad on April 8. The event was attended by more than three hundred teachers, school owners and celebrities.
Click here for press coverage of the event.

Click here to see photographs from the event.

Spark Guru April 8-2007 Launch

Our First Spark Guru Test!

This Sunday we conducted our first Spark Guru Test to recruit the Math teachers that will be teaching in our schools. A total of 43 candidates showed up. The surprising part was the variety of their backgrounds. Some were professional teachers – but many were students, housewives and aspiring corporate officers. One person currently works at a factory. We will be making 4 – 6 offers from this group. About 195 more to go!!!

First Spark Guru Test

Spark on NextBillion.net

Talk at ICICI

Ayan at ICICI
I briefly talked to 35 MIT Sloan students who visited ICICI Bank as part of their India Trek. I spoke about Spark and the vision we are pursuing. After the talk, several students expressed interest in what we are doing – perhaps we’ll see them over the summer!

We now have logo!

Tell us what you think.

Logo

What is the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’?

The Times of India Poll

The Times of India Reader Poll, March 12 and 13, 2007

There is a dearth of good teachers in India.
YES: 80%
NO: 18%
Can’t Say: 2%

Gyan Shala – the McDonalds of education in India.

The Gyaan Shala is chaired by alumni and professors from the Indian Institute of Management. Gyan Shala aims to

(i) effectively reach children from poor urban and rural families; (ii) replicate on a mass scale while maintaining quality, and (iii) maintain unit cost well within the existing government budgetary norms Ayan and I headed to meet Zalak at the Gyan Shala office in Ahmedabad. We visited 3 schools. The children were extremely bright and were even perhaps trying to “impress” the guests in the classroom. The teachers were passionate, driven, enthused and most importantly motivated. The children reciprocated the efforts of their teachers. Oblivious to the small size of the class room and paying attention only to the large hearted teachers, these children are clearly determined to become successful.

Gyan Shala has successfully gone beyond piecemeal improvements in pedagogy, learning and training material, and teacher training and evolved a `total system solution’ that provides assurance of the delivery of education service of a desired quality. Truly the McDonalds of education in
India.

Mahabalipuram

A rickety taxi ride beckoned as we headed to historic Mahabalipuram. The city was charming and the people extremely warm. We stopped at every possible tea shop on the highway to do research on our Spark Tea concept. The last tea shop was the most memorable. We were offered free chai-biscuit and not allowed to leave until we took photographs with every single family member.!!

Poor want kids in private schools

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1061218/asp/nation/story_7152921.asp

The AC Nielsen survey may vindicate a Planning Commission idea that was vetoed by the Union human resource development ministry: to give parents government money to enable them to send their children to private schools.
The survey, sponsored by the Centre for Civil Society, a voluntary organisation, interviewed teachers at government and private schools and parents with a household monthly income below Rs 5,000.
The AC Nielsen survey revives the debate. “Nearly all parents interviewed liked the voucher concept. Three-fourths of the teachers and nearly 86 per cent of the private schools liked the concept… it gives parents the opportunity to select a school of their choice,” it says

Investing equity in our youth

Millions of poor parents send their children to private schools. They refuse the pitiable education and the free meals provided by government schools and choose to pay Rs 25 – Rs 250 per month to educate their children in “English medium” schools.

The private schools range from one-room, one-teacher set-ups to big buildings that house several thousands of students. There are thousands of them crammed in the by-lanes of urban slums. Hyderabad has at least 1,100 such schools and this number is quickly increasing.

Research has shown that these schools deliver a quality of education that on an average is better than what the government schools offer.

And yet, while government schools receive large amounts of state funding, the private schools are systematically deprived of resources. They are unrecognized by the education ministries and denied credit by banks. The edupreneurs (educators cum entrepreneurs) who run these schools rely on family funds and stake their personal assets to ensure that teaching is not disrupted.

We are a group of student – entrepreneurs from MIT who want to invest in Indian edupreneurs serving poor communities to ensure that the next generation receives quality education.

If you are:
* a teacher or an edupreneur
* searching for resources for your existing school or a new school
* interested in private education for the poor and have suggestions
and comments
please contact us at priya@thesparkgroup.net or call us at 99033 77914

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

 Priya on Tempo

On the way back from the Byrraju Foundation, we couldn’t find an auto. Solution: The open cargo bed of a tempo. Cost: Rs. 20 🙂

The Edupreneurs of Hyderabad

Anwar started one school in a Hyderabad slum a few years ago. Today he runs four schools, is constructing a junior college for girls and wants a loan to start yet another college. Anwar is an edupreneur – a unique breed of innovative, enterprising entrepreneurs committed to delivering education in spite of insurmountable odds.  

At the entrance of Anwar’s school is a huge banner with pictures of students who received merit ranks – a brilliant strategy that recognizes the success of his students and advertises the school to parents who are choosing between the 15 other neighborhood private schools. Anwar stands below the banner each morning for two hours talking to parents who are concerned about their children’s progress. He addresses queries ranging from school fees to complaints about the neighborhood bully. Anwar is extremely responsive to parent’s needs – the students’ report cards have graphs depicting their performance, pictorial depictions that help illiterate parents monitor the progress of their children. To address any concerns of teacher absenteeism, Anwar is now installing cameras in all the classrooms.  

Anwar’s students have done him proud. All the classes that we visited were packed with well-dressed, disciplined, eager students who wanted to become engineers, teachers, doctors and academics. These are children of mechanics, day laborers, farmers and truck drivers. They pay Rs. 70 – Rs 200 to attend Anwar’s school because it offers a good quality education and gives them an opportunity to fulfill their dreams. 90% of the girls in Class X said that they loved Math and wanted to become engineers – it is likely that their parents will force them to discontinue their education because of the absence of a nearby college, but Anwar has a solution – he is building a college that caters exclusively to the hundreds of girls in the neighborhood!  

In a country where public education system has failed, Anwar’s four schools stand testament to the private entrepreneur’s determination to provide a decent education to the average Indian child and earn a sizeable profit doing so.

Iron Gates And Compound Walls

Our first visit to a government school – the building was freshly painted. It was also almost deserted at 1 pm. Classes were either empty or had a few girls. The boys were wandering outside. They had had their fill of the mid-day meal and didn’t see a reason why they should sit around in classrooms waiting for their teachers to show up.

The only teachers who were taking classes were the “Vidya teachers” who are paid Rs 1000 and can get fired. The government teachers who earn up to Rs 12,000 chose either not to attend the school or left early to take tuitions (which they are legally prohibited from doing).

There were 18 toilets in the school of which 17 were locked and the only open toilet was filthy. The school had a fancy computer room with several brand new machines and a state-of-the-art projector that was barely used. Why? This is because the school did not have a computer teacher.

Graphs on the principal’s office walls showed that 17% of the students had passed the state board exam.

The school had a shiny new gate that is used to prevent children from escaping until 12:30, which is when the mid-day meal is served. When asked why classes were empty, the principal complained that it was because the school did not have a compound wall!!!!

Hum Honge Kamyaab

Tooley and Saajid

Prof. James Tooley and Saajid lead the Hyderabad edupreneurs in a rendering of “Hum Honge Kamyaab” (We shall overcome). Over 40 private school owners from the old city of Hyderabad attended the meeting convened by Prof. Tooley’s Educare Trust. In the meeting the owners discussed the day-to-day problems they are facing and how financial resources could be applied to address their challenges.

For Priya and I, it was heartening to see the work that Prof. Tooley and the Trust have been doing. And above all, it was reaffirming to meet the entrepreneurs of Hyderabad. People like Anwar and Reshma – people that we had hoped to find when we quit our jobs and moved back to India.

Overall, we find the vision of private entrepreneurs providing education to poor communities, highly compelling. We also agree with Prof. Tooley that providing these entrepreneurs with financial resources would be a very effective way in helping them increase the reach and quality of their services.

Chalk-a-Block

Tution Students

Students of elite schools in Kolkata squeeze into a little room waiting for their Chemistry pivate tutor. There were 22 students attending this particular session. Each student pays 600 Rupees per month. A popular tutor could run up to four such sessions per day. We heard of tutors who find this so profitable, that they have quit their day job as teachers. Most students select their tutors based on word-of-mouth reputation. This tutor arrived 10 minutes late and did not have time to talk to us 😦

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