When Jitendra Singh topped Class V in his primary school in Agra district with an overall score of 84 per cent more than three years ago, his headmaster wondered where the boy should enroll next. To realise his full potential, Singh needed to go to a good secondary school, but his family had limited means and would not be able to afford most of them.
The headmaster finally asked Singh to apply to both the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya - a chain of free, quality schools being run by the Central government for more than a quarter century - and VidyaGyan. The boy opted for the latter, took the entrance examination and was admitted to its Bulandshahr branch in western Uttar Pradesh.
Founded in 2009, VidyaGyan is an initiative of Shiv Nadar, the co-founder of software giant HCL. There are two VidyaGyan schools - the other one in Sitapur, in central Uttar Pradesh - where Nadar's eponymous foundation provides free education to school toppers from the state's rural areas, whose family income is less than Rs 1 lakh a year. The schools provide hostels, a computer in every hostel room, books, uniforms and five meals a day - all of it completely free.
27% the average All India dropout rate in primary education in 2010/11
Nadar is not alone. A number of other business families such as Bharti Airtel's Mittals, Wipro's Azim Premji and the Birlas of the Aditya Birla group have also been setting up similar schools. The Bharti Foundation, for instance, runs the Satya Bharti School Programme, which provides free education to around 38,000 students in 254 schools - a mix of owned and managed schools - across six states. The Aditya Birla group runs 42 schools, mostly in rural areas. Of the 45,000 children in these schools, over 18,000 are educated for free.
Azim Premji Foundation, which started school education this year
, plans to open 50 schools by 2016, mainly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. At present, they have six schools.
"Our focus is to nail the two biggest problems that exist in the education system - school dropouts and teacher absenteeism," says Vijay Chadda, CEO, Bharti Foundation. The dropout rate at the primary school level was 27 per cent in 2010/11, according to Ministry of Human Resources figures. "Through better student counselling and community engagement, we have been able to lower the dropout rate by three to four per cent in our schools," Chadda adds. What about teachers playing hooky? "Our teachers are well paid, so they are motivated," he says.
Singh's family was initially suspicious about a school that provided so much for nothing. "We thought there was something wrong," he says. But there is no catch and a year later, with a score of 95 per cent in his last examination, Singh agrees.
"When students come to us, they can hardly speak in English," says B. Banerjee, Principal, Vidya Gyan , Bulandshahr. "Our objective is to make them at par with students from best private schools in urban India."
Both the VidyaGyan and Satya Bharti schools emphasise education of the girl child. VidyaGyan, for instance, reserves 30 per cent of its seats for girls. It also enrolls only 10 students per UP district and has thereby covered 50 of them. "We are addressing social imbalances with an aim to nurture leaders for tomorrow," says Banerjee.