My journey as an education entrepreneur

(This appeared in Business World, Dec 2017 issue)

Till the age of 33, I have been successful in everything I did.

I was a state-ranker in 10th and 12th standard, went to IIT and then IIMA, and within 5 years of completing my MBA, I was co-head of Irevna, a large financial research firm, now part of CRISIL/S&P.

Then everything threatened to unravel, because I decided to set up a school in rural Bengal.

Sceptical Investors

I tested my first failure as I pitched for angel funding. People were sceptical. I told the prospective investors about how I saw the famous Indian talent-crunch first-hand, as a leader of a growing firm — and as a result decided to set up a school which prepares students for life, not just for exams. But they wanted ‘proof-of-concept’, a high-sounding business jargon which asks you to show results even before you set up your business.

I showed them various teaching materials I painstakingly prepared to develop reading skills and thinking skills. A huge library of thinking-oriented problems and puzzles, a large number of books simplified for young audience. Those did not satisfy them. ‘These methods are unconventional. Have they been actually used and tested in some school?’ they asked.

It’s a classic catch-22 situation. To show results, I needed to set up my venture. But to generate money to set up the venture, I needed to show results first. So I gave up on the angel funding, and set up the school anyway out of a rented building, and decided to bootstrap as I get more students.

Sceptical Parents

My second challenge was to convince the customers (the parent body) about the kind of education my school would impart. In the first admission seminar, when I told a group of parents that rote-learning is an evil and we must ensure learning with understanding — they seemed very appreciative. But only in theory. As the school started, I saw that they were scared of any new method of imparting education. ‘There’s nothing written on their notebooks!’ one complained. ‘There is no textbook and no homework either!’ someone else joined in.

We called a meeting of the parents and explained to them that we teach more through discussions. And instead of one textbook, children read many story-books — made by the school. Developing reading skills is more important.

The clamour subsided for a while, only to resume after a few months. ‘Other schools have so many subjects — history, geography, moral science, GK etc. — here they seem be always reading and doing puzzles!’ Again, we called a meeting and explained why twice the number of subjects may not mean twice the learning. We talked about why memorizing trivia from GK books is not useful in the era of Google.

After a while though, the transformation of the students spoke for itself. Their ability to speak English fluently, their performance in the nationwide standardized tests and their love for reading converted their parents from sceptics to strong proponents of the school.

Stifling Regulations

However, the challenges were not over yet. After a few years, when we had to get our school affiliated, we really came face-to-face with the hard reality and understood why the education system in India does not work.

Affiliation rules in Indian boards (e.g. CBSE) stifle innovation. According to the rules, I was not even eligible to be the head of the school, because I did not have a B.Ed. degree and enough teaching experience. People with real-life success are not welcome in Indian schools.

The rules only monitor input (classroom sizes, number of library books etc.) — but don’t care about pedagogy and effectiveness.

Affiliation rules require us to go from one government office to another, collecting a mountain of certificates and paperwork. Anyone with an honest intent will be sickened by those interactions.

This is the point when I truly felt like giving up. CBSE seemed to be the opposite of everything our school stands for. So I also started the process of getting affiliated with CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) simultaneously.

When we got both the affiliations, we called a meeting of the parents and explained why we want to stick with CIE and reject CBSE. Parents, by now accustomed to our unconventional ways, saw the point and readily accepted. Now ours is possibly the only school in a small-town location with CIE affiliation!

With an enlightened board and supportive parent-body, we now can impart the kind of education that is meaningful. The methods which were initially seen as unconventional is now accepted as innovative.

For example, we use a lot of movies and literature to teach social sciences. To teach the history of Nazi Germany, we might screen Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’. While teaching about revolutions, we use George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. Our middle-school students read about 15–20 novels in a year, and end up watching similar number of movies. All these happen in the classroom setting, accompanied by active debates and participation.

Our students learn a lot through real work. They help us build our teaching apps (we have twelve apps on the Google Play Store, and two browser-based math and reading programs, all developed in-house collaboration with the senior students), they maintain the school’s technology infrastructure and they run the school blog and twitter accounts. Our curriculum is not so much mapped to the standard ‘syllabus’, but to the changing needs of the times.

For a start-up, this is really the best possible time — when your venture is still small and you are continuing to build the product that you dreamt of, but you are not hamstrung by day-to-day survival struggles.

Killing the Golden Goose

However, for an entrepreneur, the struggles are never truly over. Currently, the biggest of all threats are appearing on the horizon in the form of a possible fee regulation.

In our society, we have a love-hate relationship with private enterprises. We prefer private hospitals when we have a medical emergency, we enrol our children to private schools rather than government ones, we use taxi-hailing services like Uber and Ola.

However, we hate the prices they charge. We would rather have those services for free. There are protests about Uber’s surge pricing, or high fees levied by private hospitals and schools.

We must understand that there is no free lunch. Private enterprises incur costs to provide good service, and if you cap fees, you cripple them. If high-quality services exit the market, society as a whole suffers. Private school fee-cap regulation, if it happens, has the potential of destroying the already ailing school system in India, by forcing the remaining few islands of excellence to shut down.

I hope as a society we can rise above these populist sentiments. Education and entrepreneurship are the twin pillars to build prosperity — we must not kill them both with one regulatory stone.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.