Emerging Entrepreneurs

Taking the Lead in English-medium schooling

Vinay Kamath | Updated on February 03, 2020

Smita Deorah and Sumeet Mehta, Co-founders, Leadership Boulevard Pvt Ltd

Start-up has developed a ‘school-in-a-box’ solution to improve learning outcomes

Traversing the narrow streets of suburban Kolathur in Chennai, one winds up at the Kulapati Dr Balakrishna Joshi Gurrukulam Matriculation Higher Secondary School. It’s mid-morning and classes are on in right earnest. Around 25 children are in level one of an English language and general awareness (ELGA) class. They are learning words that start with ‘sp’… spinach, spray… and ‘sn’ words, from snack to snail. The teacher gestures, reading from a hand-held tablet, while the kids browse through colourful, pictorial workbooks identifying the pictures and words in a loud chorus. Most often, the flat screen TV on the wall, synced with the teacher’s tab, is used to interact with the kids.

Tabs and flat screen TVs may seem incongruous in a class of primary school kids in a suburban school, but this is one of over 750 schools across 300 primarily Tier 2 to Tier 4 towns that have signed up with Lead School, a comprehensive K-9 academic system designed by the Mumbai-based Leadership Boulevard Pvt Ltd, with an emphasis on English, general awareness, science and maths. As Principal AV Meena Kumari of KBJ Gurrukulam points out, in the local community from where all its students come, there aren’t many English speakers and Lead’s system, developed within the NCERT framework, teaches these children English language comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.


Early days

Brainchild of husband-wife duo and co-founders Smita Deorah and Sumeet Mehta, Lead School is plugging the gap in an academic system where parents aspire for English language education for their children in affordable private schools across the country. The insight came from Mehta’s own life in small-town India. Growing up in Pathankot in Punjab, where his parents were teachers, and later moving to Chandigarh for his engineering degree, then securing a seat in IIM-A, and later a job in blue-chip P&G in Singapore, Mehta always had this gnawing feeling about the huge gap between schools in metros and non-metros. “We were not aware of the opportunities and resources; spoken English was also a hurdle. Students from small towns had to prove themselves but for students from cities and top schools, entry anywhere was an entitlement,” recalls Mehta.

Both Deorah, who was also in P&G, and Mehta decided to pack their bags from Singapore and do something about this. While Deorah started a not-for-profit organisation in education, Mehta was tapped by Zee’s Subash Chandra to head Zee Learn, which was franchising and running K-12 schools in urban centres. Running it for five years was a big learning. “We went up to a 1,000 franchises and it was rewarding. We ran K-9 schools even in small towns like Bhatinda and Nagpur but I realised that we were still not solving the small-town problem,” he recalls. The gap between the under-served and the rich was massive and increasing, he says. “Every year we could see the top schools get awards, they are islands of excellence; but 80 per cent of India is going to these under-served schools.”

In 2012 he quit Zee Learn, designed an academic system with Smita, and with their personal savings, started a school in a village, Mahemdavad, in Gujarat with a population of 35,000. Only 14 kids enrolled initially. But the initial test results showed that the students were not doing well. “We put our MBA skills to use to analyse what was wrong. They were not able to solve word problems. We realised it was not a Maths problem but an English problem. Parents want English skills but they are not equipped to give it. They come from vernacular backgrounds. How will the kids succeed in an English medium school? We had to make students independent readers and writers of English and if we don’t solve that, everything else is not going to succeed, we realised. We started attacking that problem,” explains Mehta. Teacher skills were also poor.

Parents, Mehta recalls, were clear that the first ask is English medium as they know that all jobs in the future will be linked to English proficiency. “We realised that we are in boxes of 40-minute periods. We needed to improve English skills in the six-and-a-half hours the kids are with us in school. We researched the world over and realised English has to be taught as a skill, not as a subject; we broke it into its components: phonics, grammar, vocabulary, comprehension and reading, and then took the NCERT learning outcomes, developed a framework and started to implement English as a skill,” elaborates Mehta.

The Singapore education system, they realised, was a good example of breaking up of English into components and Deorah and Mehta closely studied that model. The local languages are Malay, Chinese and Tamil but Singaporeans speak English well. “Some of the stuff we did was common sense and first principles thinking while some of it was learning from the best schools and contextualising for our schools,” adds Mehta.

New training model

They also learnt that the traditional model of teachers training didn’t work. “If we train a teacher in May for something they have to execute in August, then it’s all forgotten. Also because their own skills are poor, their ability to absorb is also poor so we shifted the whole teacher training model from ‘on-schedule’ to ‘on-demand’. Rather than teaching at the beginning of the year, we give them videos they can watch on their tabs before a class on how it is to be executed. The teacher plays a video on a tablet which is shown on the TV in the classroom, and students get a worksheet to work on. We moved it to activity-based learning, from rote learning,” explains Mehta.

For the first five years Lead School was self-funded, and Deorah and Mehta put their life savings into it. The choice then was to open more schools but they decided that, instead of building fresh capacity, Lead could start offering its system to affordable private schools. In 2017, it raised external funding from Elevar Equity, whose thinking was similar to Lead’s: making impact at scale in healthcare, agriculture and education. The initial round of investments was $1.5 million and Lead has raised $10 million in multiple rounds, with Elevar being the sole investor.

Says Elevar Equity’s Managing Director Sandeep Farias, “There was alignment with Lead and us about their thinking on education outcomes. Also, the discipline with which they were thinking about scale; they had run a few schools and then scaled up in a systematic manner, and it was not scale for scale’s sake, but by adding value, and that was important for us.”

The funding has helped Leadership Boulevard scale up the hires to 550, which includes people in technology, teacher support, curriculum development and marketing. In less than 24 months since it started expanding, Lead School has 750 schools on its platform, serving over two lakh students. “For affordable schools it‘s a one-stop solution for teacher training, student engagement, academic performance, even parent engagement, as we have a parent app as well. It’s a one-stop ‘school-in-a-box’ solution,” says Mehta. Some of the private school owners have been so happy with the learning outcomes they have started a new school and turned over the academic portion to Lead, adds Mehta. “It’s a social currency running a school in a small town.”

Smita Deorah says that school-owners find they are able to implement the Lead programme fast and efficiently. “We also assure student outcomes and we are perhaps the only company that also measures student outcomes and also own the outcomes along with the school partners. They are normally used to people coming with products which they claim to be good, but there is no evidence of the outcomes and no quantitative data; but here we assure the school that we are responsible for the outcomes as much as they are,” she says. School managements see clearly that student learning and assessment scores improve in 3-4 months and they also see it visibly in students becoming independent in reading and writing in English while solving word problems in Maths. “These are visible and transparent outcomes,” she adds.

There are about four lakh affordable private schools with a 100 million students in the country and they are in acute need of something that can improve their learning outcomes. Mehta hopes to be teaching at least 10 million students in five years’ time in order to make a dent in outcomes. “We would then be able to set a standard for quality education in affordable private schools,” he adds.

The target

Lead is in version 4 of its improvement cycle as it claims to also be a learning organisation, apart from one that teaches. “We get 15,000 data points every day since we are connected through tabs and the Net, and we are constantly analysing these,” he says.

Lead looks at schools with a student strength of around 250 to 300 as anything lower won’t be economical. A 350-student school will need to pay around ₹2,500-3,000 a student per year. It’s virtually a school-in-the-box as Lead provides everything. Next academic year, the target is around 1,000 schools and over half-a-million students. “Our existing schools carry the message about our work; word of mouth is powerful,” says Mehta.

Looking at the huge opportunity, Lead continues to be in investment mode. “We are fairly responsible and ensure all our stakeholders are taken care of and we have decent operating margins. If I pull back from scaling up, we can break even, but since we are looking at 5X growth every year, we are ploughing back,” explains Deorah.

Published on February 03, 2020

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