Achieving High Impact: A Story of Transitions

By April 24, 2016India

We believe in good schools everywhere. Children can have the world’s best education even sitting under a tree, such as this photo of Hunar Ghar children on Friday. We help make the implementation changes necessary to bring good learning everywhere.


I am in India. I spend a month here every quarter. I come to assess work progress and shape the activities of the next quarter. In each trip I also reflect on the bigger picture, where we are, what we are trying to achieve, and how we are getting there. This trip has been especially reflective in this regard. If I were to choose one word to sum it up it would be “transition”. And Educate for Life is transitioning again.

Starting a transition

Almost 10 years ago we dreamed of creating inspiring schools worldwide in places where there are none. We would transition non functional schools to highly functional ones. After much research, we began our journey in the village of Bakhel. As of 2015, despite there being 765 children of school-going age in Bakhel, the local government school was closed 50% of the time and average daily attendance was just 12 children. Back in in 2007, when we built Hunar Ghar, it would only have been worse.

So we built Hunar Ghar to change this, and to change how rural development and education are approached. We conceived Hunar Ghar as a community development hub, where the learning outcomes would be high, the environment caring and nurturing, and educational activities would be integrated with health and community work. Starting with the children, this hub would begin to transition the future of Bakhel from its current marginalised state of chronic poverty to one of happy, healthy childhoods and lifetimes of opportunity for its inhabitants, as each and every person deserves.

We started by building four classrooms. But building a building is relatively easy. The government of India has built one every 1 km across the entire nation. Yet 5 million children are still out of school in India, and those that do attend are not learning. Creating the love, laughter, and learning that it takes to call a building a school – that is harder task, and one that rural India is yet to realise.

In consideration of this, we felt that a space was needed where long-term objective information gathering, coupled with community relationship building, could build an evidence base for change. Analysis of this evidence would allow new insight into the implementation gaps that inhibit good functioning and good learning in rural schools. Most importantly, the space would also research processes that could bridge these gaps. They would be simple enough for low skilled workers to do well, thus making them as accessible as possible to India’s educational workforce: We would discover how to turn these buildings every 1km into temples of learning.

We gathered support and privately funded the construction of the Hunar Ghar buildings and operations. This meant we could act independently. We aligned our operations with the government’s own operating model, officially registered it with the government so that any learnings that came from the research would be directly relevant to the government funded and operated schools, but kept the independence to innovate.

Transitions we have influenced

So began a continuous transition process that remains today. Such transitions include:

  1. Access to education. From village daily attendance of 12, we have 258 children enrolled at Hunar Ghar. This will increase to over 400 in July – over half the the children in the village.
  2. Infrastructure growth. We have increased classrooms and buildings from four to twenty-four, and will keep on building until all 765 children are in school
  3. Increased learning outcomes. From no functional learning in the village, learning levels at Hunar Ghar are now 20-30% higher than the rural state average.

Significantly, we have created positive behavioural changes without effecting the beauty of the culture of Bakhel:

  1. Teacher attitudes. We have created a culture of non-hierarchy at Hunar Ghar, where teachers sit on the floor and play and goof with the children. This is in stark contrast to the corporal punishment and discipline-through-fear of other local schools. Other teachers are being inspired by how this improves learning and enjoyment of school.
  2. Improved health seeking behaviour. As a consequence of our village health work, we have doubled the proportion of people seeking healthcare from registered professionals and have doubled the proportion of women giving birth in a hospital with a medical professional in attendance, both now at two in every three people.
  3. Demonstrating demand for education. Having been told that people in this kind of community don’t value education (and us thinking this is ridiculous from the start), we’ve created a school that can only just keep up with demand for child enrolment.
  4. Enabling real community engagement. We run the single functional School Management Committee for 100s of square miles around, and have been doing so consistently for years. We are held to account by them for school food and cleanliness standards, and are seeking ways to increase accountability to the village.

We are preparing children for a future that none can know. What we do know though, is that life will keep changing, and that people that can change with the times are those that can make the most out of life. We know that our children will need confidence to take on the challenges of life, that they will need to use their resources well, and that they’ll need to be able to network and continue to learn. We prepare children for the future by preparing them for constant transition by being happy and fostering confidence in their abilities to manage this.

As well as our educational activity, we have introduced health and community activities by supporting pregnant mothers, new mums and young infants, and the entire community through regular free clinics, eye checks, and a whole range of other services. The effect has been profound. Our Impact Report (pdf download) goes into more detail.

The final outcome will be happy and healthy children, well educated in a loving school, giving them a lifetime of opportunity to lead the kind of lives they choose to value.

Transitions in us

But it’s not only Bakhel that is transitioning. As a learning organisation conceived to create true learning for children, then we too must keep learning and transitioning. Some changes within us include:

  1. Professionalisation: As we have demonstrated greater and greater success, we have changed from being run by two volunteer students to having a full board of trustees and a suite of professional team members.
  2. Systematisation: From being run informally with limited strategic direction, we now have a 7 year business plan that is well administered under the guidance of the trustees and advisory committees.
  3. Institutionalisation: We have built up our evidence base, conducting and publishing survey and reports, and sculpting the simple processes that enable us to operate to high standards.

But not every transition is about getting bigger. When we started Educate for Life it was to create better schools worldwide. Due the challenges and complexity of doing it in rural India, we consolidated our focus to just one school. We put our change-at-scale dreams to one side, and focussed on making real, caring change just one child at a time. After all, if you can’t help one child well, how can you help two? We needed to be ourselves impacted by the children and community if we were to truly serve them. So we committed to learning to achieve high standards in one small space before re-considering expanding to others. We have maintained this committment over the last nine years. Indeed, when we first started we felt it would take at least 20 years to see the true impact of our work.

However, while the journey continues, we have been blessed with achieving good impact in a shorter period of time. There is something about focussing on the small tasks that make the big ones just seem to take care of themselves. By focusing on the care of individual children, we have had wide and meaningful reach in Bakhel. This year is significant for us because our first ever batch of students are graduating and will be taking on the next challenges in life. In a kind of symmetry that could be seen as revealing the depth of interconnectedness of processes at Educate for Life, we too as an organisation are graduating:

Continuing to transition

What’s clear from our learning is that we are no longer a UK charity just running a school in India, that much is evident:

  • We will soon launch a set of guidelines for rural teachers that codifies Hunar Ghar’s successful processes. We will implement these processes in four local government schools next year – our next major step to bridging the implementation gaps. We will share these nationally in multiple languages.
  • We are launching a sister organisation that through mentoring and creating local support networks, helps transition 12 to 18 year olds from childhood into adulthood through continuous learning and career development. This organisation will scale rapidly.
  • We are developing novel data collection and analysis techniques, with real-time capabilities. These will further improve process management, outcomes, and strengthen our evidence base for change. We will licence this to other educators, giving them the insights they need to continue to improve their impact.
  • We are advocating for change by taking the learnings and evidence of our work and connecting them with people that can effect change at scale.

Throughout all this, Hunar Ghar and the children and community it serves remain our priority. As we continue our research, standards will continue to increase at Hunar Ghar. We will continue to increase enrolment, develop even higher impact, and continue to discover new simple processes that enable high implementation success.

Indian at Heart

Educate for Life is an England and Wales registered charity, but we are Indian at heart. This year , we are making this official by  registering in India. We are now a high impact Indian organisation, one leading in rural education, working for change at scale, supported by a passionate network in the UK. We are being inspired by, and ourselves inspiring, some of India’s most prominent Changemaker individuals, organisations, and networks. We have graduated from a new organisation to an established one, one that is shaping the future of education in India.

It has been quite a journey so far, and it is far from over. Registering in India is just the next natural step in a much bigger process. If we continue to curate this transition process well, it will lead to our eventual national impact. And who knows, maybe after another ten years we will, in the end, choose to create high quality schools worldwide.


Posted by Ed Forrest, Educate for Life co-founder and CEO.

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