Educating The Girl Child In India

Safeena Husain, Founder, and Executive Director Educate Girls speaks to BW Education's Deputy Editor, Dr Waqar Ahmed Fahad through an exclusive email conversation, few excerpts from the interview are placed below

Safeena Husain, Founder, and Executive Director Educate Girls

Q. How did Educate Girls come into existence?

While women account for nearly half of India’s population, more often than not they cannot contribute towards the progress and development of the country due to lack of education. According to Census 2011, the female literacy rate is 65.46% as compared to a male literacy rate of 82.14%. Patriarchy and gender-based discrimination, systematically exclude girls from school thus denying them the advantages of autonomy, mobility and economic independence that boys enjoy. In spite of the Indian Government's substantial commitment to education, millions of girls are still out of school. Especially in rural and tribal communities, many girls lack access to quality education and have minimal understanding of their rights. Education can open doors for these girls giving them an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.

For me, the pivotal moment was when I was on an assignment setting up a clinic in Nainital, where my father had accompanied me. In a conversation with the women in the village there, when my father mentioned that I was his only child, the women expressed such deep sorrow for him as if it were such a curse to have a daughter. This very brief interaction brought to light the scale of the problem. This incident stayed with me for several days and I could not hold myself from thinking about the other girls living in such communities who are often seen as a liability and a burden. It is my strong belief that if girls living in marginalized communities are educated, they will have the skills and confidence to enter the formal economy, gain employment, make informed choices and transform their lives. So, after a decade of work in underserved communities across South America, Africa and Asia, I decided to return to India to work on girls’ education. I started a small test project in Pali district of Rajasthan. Success led to the initiation of a 500-school pilot project and Educate Girls was subsequently founded in 2007. 

Educate Girls’ focus is on mobilizing communities for girls’ education. Strongly aligned with the ‘Right to Education’ Act, Educate Girls is committed to the Government’s vision to improve access to primary education for all children, especially young girls. By leveraging the Government’s existing investment in school, Educate Girls presently works in remote, rural and tribal regions of India with a three-prong focus – increase enrolment of out-of-school girls, increase their retention and improve learning outcomes of all children. 

Q. As mentioned by you that it is the world’s first Development Impact Bond in education, can you please explain how the model works?

A Development Impact Bond (DIB), which is complementary to traditional funding, represents a new way to encourage private sector investment to fund development programs that are 100% focused on measurable impact. The Educate Girls DIB is the world’s first DIB in education. 

The three-year project (2015 -2018) was implemented in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. The project reached over 7,000 children, covering 166 schools across 140 villages.

In our model, Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), as an outcome payer, promised to pay back the investor, UBS Optimus Foundation (UBSOF), the original investment amount plus extra returns as long as the agreed targets were delivered by Educate Girls (the service provider). The Educate Girls DIB targeted increased enrolment of marginalized girls and children's progress in literacy and numeracy. Outcomes were assessed by an independent evaluator, IDinsight, over the course of the three-year tenure. 

The image below shows how this multi-party contract worked:


Results were measured and evaluated in two key areas: 

(1) Enrolment Outcomes:

Enrolment is defined by the percentage of out-of-school girls (between age 7 to 14 years) enrolled in school by the end of the third year.

Educate Girls performed a door-to-door primary survey identifying out-of-school girls, ensuring an accurate target group at the start of the intervention. 

IDinsight independently verified the accuracy of the enrolment list by sampling a portion of the lists and conducting school and household visits

(2) Learning Outcomes:

Students’ learning was measured through in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) using the ASER test, a widely used test of basic numeracy and literacy.

In the case of Educate Girls DIB, the test measured three proficiencies: Hindi, English and Mathematics for students in grades 3, 4 and 5.

The tests were administered to students before and after Educate Girls’ intervention. 

IDinsight measured the impact based on learning gains from one test to another, between students enrolled in the program and in nearby control villages.

Q. How did you manage funding and other resources for the programme? Did you also get support from the government? 

For the DIB program, Educate Girls received a budget of US$ 270,000 from UBS Optimus Foundation based on pre-agreed targets. A local team consisting of staff, frontline workers and village-based volunteers implemented the program on the ground. 

Educate Girls signed a MoU with the Government of Rajasthan that allowed us to implement the DIB program in the government-run schools in Bhilwara. Therefore, Government is one of our most important stakeholders. We would have not been able to achieve the impact had it not been for their continuous support. 

Q. What is the overall reach of the programme, in terms of number of children and geographies?

The Educate Girls DIB program was implemented in 166 schools across 140 villages in Bhilwara (Rajasthan) and reached 7,300 children. 

Q. Did you use any innovative teaching tools/ methods under this programme?

A razor-sharp focus on outcomes in the DIB program, motivated every single team member to think deeply about the barriers to achieving the set targets. The financial and operational flexibility inherent in the DIB, led to a host of creative, innovative solutions to address these barriers. 

The Educate Girls’ DIB program collected a lot of data on activities. Close analysis of this data and an improved performance management helped the teams to draw insights that were helpful in planning course-corrections. Data has helped to identify gaps in program delivery, define areas where the greater focus was needed and tailor the approach to plug these gaps.

To give you an example:

After the Year 1 assessment, Educate Girls saw less than expected change in learning levels among children. So we carefully studied the learning data for each child. Upon detailed analysis, we found that these children, who are first-generation school-goers, did not clearly understand some basic concepts. So we decided to shift our approach from being classroom-focused to now being group-focused, with each group put together based on the competency levels of children. The remedial curriculum that we used in the first year was revamped with the help of a pedagogy expert. The new curriculum, called Gyan Ka Pitara (repository of knowledge), was designed keeping in mind the needs of marginalized, first generation school going children. It is focused on building micro-competencies in English, Hindi and Math and includes interactive tools, activities and games and worksheets for every child.

Q. What were the major challenges faced during the implementation and execution of the programme?

The structure of the DIB is so complex that it was natural for it to be time-consuming - while it took Educate Girls and Instiglio nine months to put the initial proposal together, it took around three years for the DIB to materialize.

Alignment is a challenge in a multi-party contract such as the DIB. While all participants were aligned on the big vision, we had to be aligned on the smaller details of implementation, the M&E methodology, payment structure and so on. Also, since the Educate Girls DIB is the world's first in education, there was no template available for us to do a research and gain knowledge. Because of this being an unprecedented transaction, we had to constantly regroup, question and renegotiate.

Our baseline relied on flawed secondary sources of data, so we conducted our own baseline at the beginning of the project which delayed our contract. 

One of the greatest risks with a pay-for-performance contract is the exclusion of externalities. For instance, we didn’t foresee that the government would close or merge schools; there will always be things you can’t foresee. We were working with tribal, rural communities that may not have appropriate age-proofs and other documents for validation of information. The children of these families are first-generation learners who will never be able to learn at the same pace as children in urban regions - so it was important for us to evolve a DIB structure with a thick layer of empathy around it because there are going to be challenged on the ground.

For Educate Girls as the service provider on the field, it has been a tough project to implement. The DIB has brought a razor-sharp focus on outcomes and has forced us to adapt and evolve as we progressed. Our team members, especially those on the ground, had never before seen such an elaborate dashboard of data so it took us some time to train them. There were other problems around logistics that came up from time to time because of the difficult, rural geography of the region. 

Q. What are the results of the first DIB in education and how Educate Girls overachieved them?

The evaluated, final results presented by IDinsight suggest that the Educate Girls DIB surpassed both target outcomes to achieve:

116% of the enrolment target (768 or 92% of eligible out-of-school girls identified in the program areas were enrolled in school). 160% of the learning target (learning levels for students in program schools grew 79% more than their peers in other schools– almost the difference of an entire additional year of instruction.) In particular, the following corrective measures between year two and three were instrumental to achieve the outcomes: shifting from a classroom-focused to a group-focused approach, where each group was based on the competency levels of the children. implementing an improved child-centric curriculum focused on building micro-competencies in year three, where each child’s progress was tracked and individual-centric exercises were conducted to increase learning gains. increasing the number of teaching sessions overall, including sessions during the holidays and home visits to reach students who were frequently absent from school and needed tutoring dividing high capacity classes into groups and conducting sessions accordingly working more closely with individual families and ultimately focusing on outreach for all harder-to-enroll girls. Home-based visits, together with village-based meetings to influence the entire communities’ mindset toward girls’ education, has enhanced enrollment of older, harder to enroll out-of-school girls.

Q. What are your next plans, considering the results of the DIB are out and you have successfully overachieved the targets? Are you looking to expand it to other states as well?

The success of the DIB has put us in the spotlight and right now, we are focused on sharing our learnings with a larger set of audience, be it the impact investing community, the service providers as well as the Government. We are excited to be invited to be a part of important events across the globe and drive a larger conversation around ‘innovative finance.’ 

The DIB has cultivated a culture of adaptability, transparency, problem-solving and most importantly, accountability, across the organisation. Between 2019 to 2024, Educate Girls will expand operations to cumulatively reach over 16 million children living in rural, educationally backward geographies of India. We believe the lessons from the DIB will go a long way in delivering value at scale.  To give you an example, the new child-centric curriculum focused on building micro-competencies in English, Hindi and Math, developed during the DIB will now be implemented in other schools with Educate Girls’ intervention. Data-based, decentralized decision-making that evolved during the DIB will now be applied in other program districts in problem-solving.   Participating in the DIB is helping us to build an organisation that has an outcomes’ focused approach where all activities are evaluated against clearly defined results. We are forcing ourselves to think more deeply about the barriers and enablers to achieving those outcomes and most importantly, be accountable to every single child in the program.

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