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

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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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

What is the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’?

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 😦

Naihati – outskirts of Kolkata

Meeting school Principals was never more difficult. Ayan, Priya and I were constantly turned away because the Principals were busy preparing for the April examinations!. So much for driving for 2 hours and cold calling at schools. We did meet a very young enterprising school owner who had taken up franchiseeship of “alohaindia” – the company started by Shakuntala Devi, the Math Guru. The children at the school were well disciplined, the school premises were clean and the teachers always had a smile on their faces. We also met the hostile Principal of a Miltary school, who was not interested in having “non-army” personnel on the premises!!. Needless to say, we didn’t have much succcess at this school!!

Raja Bazaar – bylanes of Kolkata

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Chetan and I visited two schools during our visit to Raja Bazaar.

Both the schools were housed in tiny brick huts and would surely become extremely uncomfortable in the summer months. Funds allow only for a single session taught by a lone educator. Though poverty seemed rampant everywhere in the slums, there seemed to be a cheerful spirit amongst everyone I met during my visit. The children were extremely bright and looked forward to their annual “Camlin drawing competition” just as we were leaving.

The school fees ranged from Rs 25- Rs 35 a month depending on the class attended. Unfortunately, while this sum seemed on the higher side for some of the families, the same parents did not hesitate to spend Rs 60 a month to send the children for a “coaching class” in the evening!.

Sri Ram School –

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Early Tuesday Morning, I was driven 1 hour from Chennai to the Sri Ram Foundation school.. 

It was quite uplifting spending time with so many bright and hopeful young students. The school only has one section per class and this seems to be working since the teachers are more focused and have a great one on one relationship with all students.  

The school was started in 1991 and graduated its first class of 10th graders in 1996. The teachers, like all the people we meet working in the health and education sectors, are tremendously pragmatic and dedicated in the face of difficulties that most of these students face since most hail from middle –class backgrounds.

Parents of most of the children attending this school work at the adjacent Sri Ram factories. They pay fees – approximatley 300 Rs amonth ,a cost that seems well spent since  the children do seem to be getting a good quality education. Many of the students we talked to had already decided on what they would study at University – engineering, medicine and computer science were the most popular subjects. All of the students were articulate, confident and spoke easily about their experiences.

The school is in good hands. The principal – Mr Krishnan is extremely enterprising and wants to introduce the Kaizen and TQM methodology to education at this school.

A Ray of Hope

Parikrma Kids

I have been raving about Parikrma (www.parikrmafoundation.org/) to anybody who will give me the time of day. Mrs. Shukla Bose and her team have something good going at the four schools they have been running in the city of Bangalore. I was amazed at the enthusiasm of the children and their smartness.

Each class is named after a planet. Class 1 is Mercury, Class 2 is Venus etc. I asked the class 2 students why they were called Venus. One girl stood up and told that they were called Venus because Venus is the 2nd planet from the Sun and they were the 2nd class. At this point another kid stood up and said that he disagreed. He felt that they were called Venus because Venus is the brightest planet and they were the brightest kids in the school!

Most kids come from underprivileged backgrounds. Many continue to be child laborers. And yet they are clearly getting a good education at Parikrma. The English I heard from these students was better than the English of many students in the elite schools I have visited so far.

One more remarkable aspect of the Parikrma story is their ability to raise funds from CSR programs. Each individual classroom is sponsored by a company. I saw classrooms sponsored by Motorola and Adobe. Is this a story unique to high-tech Bangalore or can this model be replicated at the other metros? Mrs. Bose thinks that it is replicable and can be achieved for 15,000 Rupees per child per year (2,000 less than the government already spends). We are eager to help her create a model that can be franchised across the various cities. Please contact us if you are interested in starting a Parikrma school in your city or want to help us create this model.