Change is possible for public education in India. Azim Premji shows how

In his keynote speech at the 19th Polestar Awards function, an annual award for excellence in journalism, Azim Premji draws on his vast experience in education and philanthropy to talk about what needs to be done to improve public education in India

Founding Fuel

In 2000, Azim Premji started a foundation to work on primary education in India. Premji had already built Wipro into a multi-billion dollar technology outsourcing firm, multiplying his wealth in the process. At the turn of the century, he had taken the first step to put that money to good use, for society in general, and education in particular. In the past 17 years, his foundation’s work has expanded to more than 40 districts across six states and one union territory—touching thousands of schools and teachers. From executing projects for ten years, Azim Premji Foundation now focuses on building institutions and partnerships for greater impact.

Recently, speaking at the 19th Polestar Awards ceremony in Chennai, Premji condensed his key learnings from the 17 years of philanthropy. The Polestar Awards, instituted in 1998 by the Polestar Foundation to recognise excellence in journalism, has expanded its scope to include social impact programmes. This year, NS Ramnath won the award for the Best Feature in Business for his insightful story on Gerd Gigerenzer and why simple rules of thumb often outperform complex models.  

Here's the full text of Premji’s speech at the event, followed by some photographs from the awards ceremony.

Azim Premji’s Speech at the 19th Polestar Awards

Key Note Address | Improving School Education in India

27 October 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.

It is a pleasure to be here with you.

Let me begin by congratulating all the recipients of the Polestar Award for 2017.

Let me also congratulate Arun [Jain] and the team at the Polestar Foundation, who have established and run the Polestar award now for 18 years.

Through its recognition of the best work in journalism and media, these awards play a very important role. High quality journalism is as important to a society as is the elected legislature and other such organs and institutions of democracy.

Such awards encourage and support good journalism which is a foundation for a good society and a vibrant democracy.

Amidst all these outstanding journalists who are here for this function today, I can hardly talk about media and journalism. Leave alone being an expert about the matters in media, I know that I have an image of being what is called “media shy”. And know that this image is not without good basis.

So, today I am going to talk to you about another equally important foundation of good society and vibrant democracy, as is media and journalism. I will talk about public school education in India. This is something that I have been involved with for over 17 years.

Let me begin by briefly touching upon what I believe is good education in a public system as complex as that of India, which has over 1.5 million government schools, reaching over 200 million children.

In my view, and as reflected in several national policy documents and curricular goals, good education is that which enables the growth and development of the child in multiple dimensions, such that she is able to fulfil and expand her potential and become an active, contributing and concerned citizen of our country and the world. These multiple dimensions of development of the child include not just the cognitive, but also the physical, social, emotional and ethical development of each child. And this must happen in an integrated manner.

Good education is about giving our children the ability to think critically, to question

Good education is not about rote memorisation and getting good grades, it is about giving our children the ability to think critically, to question, and to develop their individual autonomy.

Good education is about developing good human beings who are empowered to make informed and ethical decisions, and who grow into responsible and caring citizens. And also good education is that which in its totality enables the development of our country into the great nation envisioned in our constitution.

While we realise the great need for improvement both in our school and higher education sectors, we at the Azim Premji Foundation decided to work largely in the field of school education, in which we have now been engaged for 17 years. Our focus has been totally on helping the government schooling system improve. That is because the mandate of our government schooling system or the public education system as it is called, is to teach children from all parts of country without any discrimination, and so to clearly serve the most disadvantaged sections of our society.

Our work is currently in the states of Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. We also work in the North Eastern states, Bihar, Telangana and Pondicherry. These systems have over 350,000 schools. Our work is entirely focused on helping improve the states’ schooling system, especially in the disadvantaged districts of these states.

In 2010, after 10 years of experience of working in the field, we realised that a major problem was the great dearth of well-trained, dedicated, education professionals in the field, and so we decided to establish the not for profit Azim Premji University, for educating professionals, meaning experts in education and other human development areas with the hope that many of our graduates would be committed to work in the social sector.

Let me also mention that in the past three years we have also started another initiative. This supports NGOs working in certain specific areas that are complementary to education, by giving them funding support through grants. Currently we are focused on organisations working with vulnerable groups such as street children, urban homeless, women at risk of violence and teenage girls of disadvantaged communities. We are also working on supporting efforts to reduce stunting in children in the state of Orissa, to help improve the situation of small and marginal farmers in Andhra Pradesh and improving local self-governance in a few states.

Let me return to education. Based on our work in school education, let me share with you a few other points and issues that strike me as important in improving our school education system:

First, all of us, including the government, need to strongly and visibly re-affirm the importance of quality public education, because public education is foundational to democracy, for it helps break down social and economic inequalities and builds an egalitarian, inclusive spirit. The most developed nations have invested in developing a strong public education system as they realise that this is critical to the functioning of a democratic society.

We do not need to stifle private schools, but our aim should not be to create a parallel system of private schools

We do not need to stifle private schools, but our aim should not be to create a parallel system of private schools. It should be to revamp and empower the existing public system which today reaches almost every village in our country. It is imperative that we revitalise this system, so that the most disadvantaged of our children can have access to a decent education.

Second, the problem is while we have many excellent policies and intentions, our execution on the ground has been very weak. We must focus on execution and implementation on the ground.

Change in education takes a very long time; we must not keep changing our priorities and our approaches every few years

Third, we need to make sustained and consistent efforts. We must realise that change in education takes a very long time, and that we must not keep changing our priorities and our approaches every few years. I am hopeful that the New Education Policy that the government is working on can provide a framework for this sustained effort for the next decade.

Fourth: Improving the teacher education system, including the B.Ed., D.Ed., colleges are crucial if we want to develop good teachers. Unfortunately, many of our 16,000-odd teacher colleges are more of commercial institutes with no real interest in education. These are often owned by powerful people who resist attempts at change. So, reforming the system will be a daunting challenge which will take political will, commitment and courage. But unless we do this, our school education will not improve for a long, long time. On this point I must mention that this current government has taken bold and decisive steps to reform this system. While it is a start, it is reason for hope.

Fifth, we must make sustained and systematic efforts to develop the capacity of existing teachers by providing comprehensive ground support in multiple ways, including opportunities and mechanisms for peer learning. This will require revamping our Cluster and Block Resource Centres, as well as our 600-odd existing District Institutes of Educational Training (DIETs), which can then take the lead in addressing the multiple needs of school education, including capacity development of teachers.

Sixth, it is also most important to improve our early childhood care, especially to provide nutrition and early education to our children, as this is the foundation for the development of the child. At present, we have 13 lakh strong network of Anganwadis which we must invest in and improve to ensure a sound foundation.

Lastly, to make all this happen we will have to significantly increase public investment in education which at present is woefully inadequate. Illustratively, our public expenditure for school education is only 2.8% of our GDP, while that of other developing countries is over 3.5%, and developed countries, which have good education systems is 5% to 6% of GDP. This calls for political will and prioritisation.

The issues I have raised are not the only ones in education, but I do think they are some of the most important ones. If we want our education to fundamentally improve, we will have to seriously take up the above challenges.

I have spoken to you about the many areas in which I feel our education system needs to improve, including the need to develop the capability of our teachers. So, let me tell you a story that gives me great hope that change is possible.

Some time ago, I was driving from Hyderabad to Gulbarga. We took a detour from our route to visit a government school in a village called Hallikhedu, reaching there about 7.30pm in the evening. We entered a reasonably sized room where about 25 government school teachers were gathered together along with a couple of our colleagues from the Foundation.

They were having an intense discussion on how they could become more effective teachers. Prior to this, they had just completed a session on how to develop low-cost training material to teach science in government primary schools. I learnt that this was one of many such meetings they regularly had.

Now, here is the important thing that I would like to emphasise. This was not a meeting they were obliged to attend by a government order. All of them had come voluntarily after school hours, investing their own time and spending their own money. By the time we finished, it was 9pm.

They want to learn to become better teachers. They want to teach their students to learn better

So the question is what motivated these government school teachers to spend their own time and money on such efforts? The answer seems quite clear to me and quite simple. It is because they want to learn to become better teachers. It is because they want to teach their students to learn better.

Throughout that week, I travelled across northeast Karnataka. In many of the villages and the small towns that I went to, I saw hundreds of teachers from government schools, who are deeply committed and motivated, often coming even on a Sunday. I can tell you that even in a corporate world, in a company like Wipro, few employees would be happy to come on a Sunday and that too at their own cost just so that they could learn to become better software engineers!

I must say that this positive experience that we have had with government school teachers is not only in northeast Karnataka, but in all places across the country.

Our experience has been that 10 -20% of teachers—i.e. hundreds and thousands in each district—are highly motivated and lead positive change. For sure, 10-20% are quiet disengaged. However, the middle 60% can work positively if they are provided with the right environment and support, and this goes for the young teachers who are just getting into the profession.

In the frontline of our public school system, there are a significant number of people with dedication and commitment

To me all this is a reason for great hope, as it means that in the frontline of our public school system, there are a significant number of people with dedication and commitment. And this includes officials at various levels of the system.

No others’ actions can actually get implemented, unless teachers are enthusiastic allies of change

Our schools and colleges need to improve on very many counts, we are aware of these challenges. But we have to provide the support and environment for such changes to happen, so that our teachers feel empowered and take initiative. There are many actions that we need to take in school education on a sustained basis, but creating an empowering environment for the teachers, is in my view the topmost priority. And this is because teachers are central to education and because no others’ actions can actually get implemented, unless teachers are enthusiastic allies of change.

As I end my remarks, I must mention that Polestar Awards has a category on education. I think this is a very good move.

It’s not only in my assessment, but most of us know that education is central to developing a better India. When I speak of a better India, I visualise the India envisioned in our constitution, an India which is just, equitable, humane and sustainable. To achieve this, all of us must come together and work, and most importantly, empower the teachers who are really the frontline of education. I am sure if we do this, we will see a transformation not only in our education system but in our society.

Thank you very much for inviting me to this function.

I again congratulate all the awardees and Arun and his team.

Thank you.

Snapshots from the Awards Function

[NS Ramnath receives the Polestar Award from Azim Premji. Standing next to him is Arun Jain, founder of the Polestar Foundation and chairman and managing director at Intellect Design Arena Ltd.]

 [The citation and the trophy.]

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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