Aditya Natraj

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2010
This description of Aditya Natraj's work was prepared when Aditya Natraj was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


The 2009 Right to Education Act makes free elementary education the right of every child between the ages of 6 to 14 years in India. This is a historic milestone for the country and implementation of this Act on the ground is a focal point of concern. Aditya Natraj envisages a major shift in education leadership, where the government school principal is perceived as a lever to affect large-scale change in a failing system.

The New Idea

Aditya’s idea focuses on a deficient government school education system where over a 110 million school-age children are illiterate. He is using the lens of education leadership to focus on the school principal and their role which has thus been seen as an administrator—is revisited with the aim of changing attitudes and perspectives.

Aditya is introducing a philosophy by which the principal must return to the concept of teaching, must be a teacher to provide effective leadership to the teaching-learning process, and must bring empathy into his engagement with staff, students, and the larger community.

For sustained impact, Aditya is also looking at ways by which the existing education infrastructure must support the school principal. The increased engagement as an educator rather than a cog in the administration wheel, is returning the sense of dignity and respect the school principal has lost over time. The career graph of the school principal is getting revamped.

Aditya’s intervention works at the level of the larger ecosystem by engaging with the government administrative machinery at village, cluster, block, and district, as well as state and central levels. The aim is to nurture and create a buy-in of his idea by all stakeholders and so evolve a system-wide solution.

The Problem

The quality of education remains a persistent problem in India’s 700,000 plus public schools. The Assessment Survey Evaluation Research from 2008 for rural India reports that only 56 percent of fifth graders can read a second grade textbook in their mother-tongue; teacher absenteeism and low levels of teaching activity are visible problems; the gender divide is apparent as the number of girls in schools remains lower than the number of boys; and a small village government school in India may have under 50 percent attendance and low attendance, with high drop out rates being familiar issues.

The management of education on the ground is a frustrating experience for school principals and teaching staff. Many of them manage their own private schools on the side, having given up on the government school system and the children it is supposed to serve. The connection between teacher and students has broken down and when the teacher is physically present with students, invariably the rod rules. The principal hardly, if ever, steps into the classroom.

In these schools, the senior-most teachers are eligible to be the school principal after two days of administrative training. No other certification or course of education is required or provided. Thus, the education system and leadership is ill-prepared to engage with the children, their parents, and significant decision-makers in the community or with the government machinery. Quality of education is dependant on a fractured system, with no coherent dialogue between the key players and no motivation to provide leadership direction.

In terms of the larger picture, one of the big missing pieces in government efforts appears to be in models of effective implementation that take into account the capacities, skills, motivation, and attitudes of the staff. By the time initiatives flow top down through the state, district, block, and cluster to a village school, the charge of engagement is lost. Teachers and principals are passive recipients of a job list and there is no question of a reverse flow of information to feed the system.

The Strategy

Aditya’s strategy adopts a multiple point approach. At the grassroots level, he and his team ensure the attentive and active participation of school principals in government schools through close interaction and deep engagement with them.

Principals have to do more than accept an idea; they have to undergo training which is as per the in-service three-year Principal Leadership Development Program (PLDP) Aditya has designed. As a part of this training they have to be open to changing the ways in which they perceive their roles, including stepping into the classroom and teaching students. Many such elements designed to induce behavioral change and build empathy into the leadership process are at the core of the leadership training.

Support for the principals during the PLDP is provided through another initiative, the Gandhi Fellowships, which takes the form of a two-year placement for socially aware graduates from India’s top colleges, in schools that are a part of Aditya’s initiative. Selected graduates are mentored and trained to work with principals to help them turn their schools around in a symbiotic relationship where both parties stand to gain.

Aditya has been able to demonstrate results in Gujarat and Rajasthan, working with 200 principals in rural and urban government school environments. He is launching his program in tribal areas in Maharashtra. Aditya’s spread strategy involves working closely with government machinery to gain government support and readiness to accept his model and implement it through existing infrastructure. Ensuring a good relationship with the government is a critical factor to achieve leverage in a large and unwieldy public school system. Aditya is in various stages of agreement, negotiation, and discussion with the central and state governments, education departments, State Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan offices and the State Institute of Educational Management and Training.

Aditya has extensively networked through collaborations and partnerships with technical organizations in the field of academic and education leadership, i.e. the Ravi Mathai Centre for Educational Innovation at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Bodh Shiksha Samiti, and Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

The Person

Aditya grew up seeing the impact of education as well as the lack of it at close quarters. After a master’s degree in economics, he studied Chartered Accountancy and Business Management. His family roots go back to rural India and in his lifetime he has witnessed the effect of a differential education, as some members of his family, including cousins, were deprived of an education due to poverty. Seeing the difference between careers and futures ensured by education and those hampered by the lack of it have been critical to his perspective.

Aditya worked in the corporate sector for well over a decade with multinational clients in India and the U.K. but found his calling in the development sector in the field of education. He joined a premier education nonprofit in Gujarat, Pratham, where he worked as Program Director for five years.

Aditya’s idea took shape due to the strong impression left on him by the integrity and dynamism of one local school principal in India. His vision was to take forward what he saw by building an enabling system that could become a model for education leadership across government schools in India. These are the schools that cater to the poor and the marginalized who do not have access to optional educational opportunities available to the more privileged. Aditya aims to demonstrate how the public education system can be made to work by turning it around, reviving the faith of people in it, and thus opening a door to quality education for children that can help them escape poverty.