School education is a popular subject for CSR: a study by Samhita Social Ventures, based on publicly available information from the top 100 listed companies, shows that more than three-quarters of them implemented at least one programme in education over the last three years.

While it is encouraging to have this scale of corporate participation, the efforts are skewed thereby creating an imbalance in the sector. For example, as shown in the graph, more than half the companies provide support to schools through donation of infrastructure and learning material and a similar proportion provide scholarships in cash and/or kind.

However other kinds of initiatives that have directly or indirectly impacted learning outcomes have not had significant support. For instance, only 29 per cent of the companies support remedial education, 15 per cent invest in training teachers and principals, 13 per cent support programmes to make classroom learning more fun and interactive, and a dismal 9 per cent support changes such as curriculum enhancement and formative assessments.

Interestingly, these results also seem to mirror the findings of ASER over the past 10 years. Their most recent report (2014) continues to show the disappointing trend in learning levels — less than half the children in class 5 could read a class 2 text and only a quarter could do division. This despite 98 per cent habitations have a primary school within 1 km walking distance.

Stress on infrastructure

One of the main reasons for poor learning outcomes in India has been attributed to the underlying input-oriented approach and thinking in government policy circles wherein the thrust has been on creating infrastructure and providing inputs such as food, uniforms and so on. This study now shows that companies may be following suit and concentrating their CSR efforts on infrastructure at the cost of other systemic issues that need reform.

There could be two reasons for this trend. First, companies are responding to demands on the ground. Our interactions with schools, especially in rural areas, have shown that principals believe that investment in infrastructure is important to ensure that their schools are attractive, thus increasing attendance and retention rates. Second, companies highlighted the difficulty and risk in implementing systemic initiatives mainly because of lack of recognised implementation partners and technical experts, the difficulties associated with indirect impact, the long gestation period and time taken to realise changes, and the misconception that these interventions are expensive.

On the other hand, findings indicate that companies are beginning to show strategic thinking behind their CSR efforts in education. Skills development forms a quarter of all programmes implemented by companies in the IT and finance industry, the highest across all industries. These companies typically work with a large base of employees who are available for volunteering and appreciate the need for training and mentorship even within their business.

Welcome move

More than half the programmes implemented by FMCG companies are connected with school health and nutrition, signalling that companies are leveraging their domain knowledge, reinforcing products and exploring new markets through CSR. Many heavy engineering and manufacturing companies are supporting local schools and children in the vicinity of their plants or factories, thus responding to the needs of one of the most important stakeholders (the community). All these are signs of companies using their core skills and knowledge in their CSR and this is a welcome move.

With Section 135 of the Companies Act 2013 making spending on CSR mandatory for qualifying companies, there is ample potential for the corporate sector to address the missing gaps in the education ecosystem. This study showed that what is required is strategic thinking from the companies, combined with a balanced approach wherein companies create a portfolio of CSR initiatives that balances high-risk, high-returns social programmes with low-risk, low-returns programmes.

The writers are with Samhita Social Ventures