Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   India

Saransh Vaswani

Building on an unimplemented mandate in India’s recent education reform legislation, Saransh is changing marginalized parents from being seen as barriers to their children’s learning to changemakers…
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This description of Saransh Vaswani's work was prepared when Saransh Vaswani was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.

Introduction

Building on an unimplemented mandate in India’s recent education reform legislation, Saransh is changing marginalized parents from being seen as barriers to their children’s learning to changemakers alongside teachers and administrators. In doing so, he is creating roles for parents from marginalised communities to have a significant contribution in the educational outcomes of millions of children across India.

The New Idea

Saransh is building a community of empowered parents across India by making them partners in their children’s education. Especially focusing on parents from marginalized communities across India’s large public education belt, Saransh’s intervention is shaping the human and community capacity of low-income families that ultimately ensures that all children have the equity to be able to flourish in their learning journey’s.

Building off the foundational systemic impact that he was able to create by involving parents in strengthening the community governance systems, mandated by the Right to Education Act (RTE) in India, Saransh is now creating a digital peer to peer network of parents to support each other in their children’s educational journeys. Saransh has created a system by which he is connecting already engaged parents from low-income communities, such as those who are members of existing school management systems or those he connects with through trusted partners, to other parents who need support to establish a platform of exchange and conversation. In doing so, he is creating a social capital that is regenerative in nature and supports the spread of the idea that parents from low- resourced families can play a significant role in their children’s educational outcomes.

Saransh’s model parents, who are paid for their services, connect to other parents through a free national helpline. As the model parents come from a similar background, the bridge of unfamiliarity is minimal, and parents feel like they can engage at ease. During these conversations, the two parties discuss the challenges the parent is facing at home regarding their child's education and often over a series of conversations create a plan of action. If it is something that is related to a classroom or school level challenge, the model parents take it up with the schools themselves or if they are disconnected from the school in question, guide the parent towards the right people. Similarly, Saransh’s platform leverages the thousands of educational tools and resources that already exist within the sector as support pillars for parents who call up the helpline. The model parents guide the callers on where to access such tools, how to use them effectively and any other questions they may have. As the parents use these tools, critical data on their effectiveness and the impact it has on the child is captured, which then can get feedback into the system to strengthen the design and implementation of these tools. Furthermore, Saransh’s online platform, which facilitates the connection to these tools/resources is constantly capturing the case studies of questions and queries those parents have when they call the helpline, to streamline the support process as well as capture critical data that identifies the biggest pain points that parents face. This is critical data that is then used for further advocacy at the government level.

During the 6-8 weeks' time period from first call to the parent helpline, a facilitated journey is created for the parents, through messages and IVRS to handhold these parents through their requests. The system and online platform are designed around the realities of these parents, who are often daily wage laborers and migrant workers. This entire process is continually repeated with the option of on demand phone calls, every 6-8 weeks.

Besides strengthening the system through critical data and information, perhaps the biggest impact that lies in Saransh’s model is what comes with the self-belief that you can and play a role in your child's success while they learn. The natural ingenuity and innovative characteristic of these parents comes out when they are lent a hand to discover their power and agency as guardians. This leads to not only transformational outcomes for children while learning but is seen as manifestations of better environments created at home for learning, greater proportion of income being spent on learning and ultimately stronger, driven families who believe there is a generational change awaiting them with the success of their children.

The Problem

The lack of a quality education in India’s public school system is one of grave concern. The 1.4 million public schools scattered across India are home to hundreds of millions of children, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and often first-generation learners.

These schools are free, and children from the most marginalised families enroll themselves into them. These are the children of migrant workers, daily wage laborers and several categories who fall near or under the poverty and extreme poverty lines. These students also often come from scheduled castes and tribes who have been suppressed communities in India for centuries before. Heads of schools, teachers and school administrators often treat these parents and their children badly, blaming them for their situation and thus burning a critical bridge in that child's learning journey. The relationship between the school and parents is one that is never rebuilt or recognised for the importance it should hold. Further, because most of these parents internalise the fact that they are not educated and hence have nothing to offer, they completely disconnect from the support they need to provide at home. This problem is exacerbated by the belief that parents have that they need to be technical experts, or a mere replication of a teacher to have any meaningful contribution to their child's education. More so than this, what is critical is the values and champion role that parents play in ensuring that children are motivated, have the right environment and see their education as important.

This is significant because data and research shows that parental education, engagement and community participation can play a significant role in helping students from marginalized families to achieve academic success and become contributing members of society.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 reports that regardless of the socio-economic background of households, parents ‘can help children achieve their full potential by spending some time talking and reading with them.’ A report by Young Lives, published in February 2018, states that children ‘whose caregivers aspired for them to complete secondary education or above are three times more likely to continue schooling at age 19 than their counterparts.’ Ongoing research also shows that family engagement in schools improves student achievement, reduces absenteeism, and restores parents’ confidence in their children’s education. Students with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores, have better social skills, and show improved social behaviors. Furthermore, and probably most important, children start to become proud of their parents and who they are. They no longer assume the identity of a low-income worker but someone who is striving for generational change and progress in their family.

Unfortunately, parents from the marginalised communities whose children are in government schools are not empowered by the system to act on their potential to support their children in
this learning, though recent changes in the law support that potential, in theory. In 2009, the
Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) was passed with the aim of improving access, quality and equality in education. The Act states that the appropriate government (state or center) is responsible to provide free elementary education and ensure compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary education to every child in the six to fourteen age group irrespective of caste, gender, disability or socio-economic background. This Act states that every government school must form a School Management Committee (SMC) which must include parents, teachers, the head of school and community members to increase community involvement in government schools. Unfortunately, most SMCs have not been active and only exist on paper due to lack of accountability mechanisms.

Furthermore, the plethora of action and investment that goes into education in India today usually is focused on strengthening school systems, curriculum and/or working directly with administrators, teachers and of course students. Very seldom is there any action to work with parents, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is because of the difficulty or perceived difficulty of this target audience. As almost the same amount of time is spent at home with parents or guardians as is with facetime with teachers over the course of one year, a lack of any parental engagement puts children at a significant disadvantage compared to others. This problem is highlighted more so during the ongoing COVID pandemic, where the home has literally become the classroom and parents have become extensions of teachers. In this new climate, parents who are not engaged in their children's education run the risk of leaving their children even further behind.

The Strategy

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) act of 2009 was a historical moment in India. In 2002, the 86th amendment of India’s constitution introduced article 21-A, making the right to education a fundamental right. This was the first time in India’s independent history that a fundamental right was added to the constitution. The RTE Act was the enabling legislation and it stated that the School Management Systems (SMC) would be the most basic unit of decentralized governance in the public education system. The SMCs are governing bodies that bring together parents, community members and school administrators to hold both the school and educational authorities accountable to create the best environment possible for learning for children. Having experienced and witnessed the deep inequity that exists with children who come from low-income backgrounds and attended these public schools, Saransh saw the SMC as a high potential leverage point to close this equity gap. More specifically, Saransh’s insight was that greater parental involvement at a classroom, school, community, and household level will complement the enabling environment needed to support the success of a child during their learning journey.

Incubated by Pratham and seed funded by Central Square Foundation in 2013, Saransh launched Saajha to leverage the SMCs to bring about greater parental engagement in their children's learning journeys. While the SMCs are required to be presented, they are dysfunctional units without any functioning capability across the country.

Initially, Saransh chose to work with a group of 60 schools, where he curated services to engage parents from low-income communities to raise greater awareness about the importance of parental engagement in creating effective learning environments. As well as this, he was working with the heads of schools and teachers to desensitize them towards these parents, shifting them from seeing these parents as useless and distant to being a critical extension to their own roles to being effective educators.

Saransh implemented these engagements through several creative means, understanding the intersectional and complex systems with which these parents are part of daily. For example, he understood that most of these parents would be illiterate themselves and this is one big reason that prevented them from participating in this process in the first place. To overcome this, Saransh used storytelling formats in vernacular languages to create a familiar environment for these parents. Through these stories and subsequent materials produced (story books), Saransh explained the importance of parental engagement and the big role/opportunities that exist to start playing a role through SMCs. In addition to this work, Saransh started to develop networks among parents and facilitate conversations between school authorities and parents to discuss their children's education within the school environment and outside of it. For most parents, this was the first time such an interaction was happening. An example of the impact of this engagement is the parent-teacher meetings that regularly occur. While these meetings are an effective opportunity to understand, diagnose and correct problems students are facing, there exists a power dynamic in how the room is structured where the teacher sits in front of the parent at the front of the class. One suggestion of shifting the chairs into a circle was given by a parent, which radically improved how involved all the other parents also got involved in raising questions and listening intently to feedback on their child's performance.

This pilot with over 5000 families showed great results. The baseline data which showed 29% of parents who felt they could engage with school authorities and SMCs at the start of the pilot improved to 70%, while 31% of parents who participated in the pilot were able to intervene and provide support to their children in their learning journeys, either through direct engagement at home or taking up matters at a school level. During this pilot, Saransh and his team realised that the bridge between parents and school was just one pillar of connection out of several others that needed to be focused on. Saransh started to explore models to also connect parents and educational administrators at a district level, parents and their children in a home environment and between parents themselves within the community. For example, Saransh realised that many of the issues the parent community raised with the school authority were not being investigated or solved, and some solutions lie outside the specific remit of the administration. As the parents did not pay fees in these public schools, they did not feel empowered to hold the school accountable for solutions such as creating usable playgrounds. Saransh proposed “SMC sabhas” in the state of Delhi where he brought together SMCs from 10 – 15 schools in one district along with officers from all the public works departments and facilitated discussions which helped solve the problems the parents were facing.

At a look at future scale, Saransh created an online platform that is usable with even the most basic mobile phones, collecting information, networks and engagement opportunities that cut across each of the focus areas mentioned above. To support most parents who are occupied with the pressure of their work as daily wage earners and other burdens that hold them back, Saransh created an IVRS system that can automatically call and/or message parents with reminders, resources, and other support to drive engagement.

Recognising the huge success of this completely ignored area of work that was being championed by Saransh, the Delhi government drew Saransh in to implement this framework of parental engagement across 1000 schools in Delhi and reaching over 1.25 million children, most from low-income backgrounds. In collaboration with the Delhi government, Saajha created a state-level policy and implementation framework for parental and community engagement. This included direct support and capacity building of government staff, processes for effective monitoring, building, and implementing large-scale interventions and providing support on policy changes required for effective parental engagement. The advocacy efforts resulted in the institutionalization of certain interventions, such as a platform for direct conversation between parents and government officials and the creation of budget heads for their implementation. In order to effectively prepare for the scale of this model, Saajha trained 130 cluster resource coordinators who are funded by the state education department, and they went out and trained over 16,000 SMC members and thousands of other stakeholders to adopt the methodology. Most importantly, policy changes resulted in huge shifts in long-existing power hierarchies between schools and parents, with parents now having a platform to get involved and feeling like they have the agency to do so.

Saajha’s intervention improved communication between parents and school bureaucracies, with an increase of 33% of grievances raised by parents. As per a government report, student reading levels also improved by 15% during the period of intervention. A recent assessment of Saajha’s work, undertaken by an independent agency, found that parental engagement doubled the likelihood of improvement in reading level for children from low-income households. The intervention resulted in 40.6% of learners improving their mother tongue reading fluency levels compared to 19.0% in the control group. Saransh and Saajha have subsequently been invited by three other states to start pilots and then large-scale implementation of the model. For example, in Maharashtra, the state government invited Saransh to start an intervention in their geography. Through a small pilot, they were able to facilitate effective school governance that prompted the state government to commission a 3-year program covering 500+ tribal residential schools and approximately 200,000 students.

Even prior to the ongoing COVID pandemic, Saransh realised that it would be critical to move towards creating an environment to facilitate connections between parents, so that the role they play within a household level can be increased. Given the fact that parents spend an equal amount of time with children outside of school hours and even more given the ongoing pandemic, creating an environment for quality learning at home is important. As equally as important as being troubleshooters to support learning gaps, parents play a critical role in facilitating the values and environment for this learning to happen. Saransh realised that his interventions already engaged thousands of parents from low-income communities and took them up a steep curve, to now becoming ‘champions’ of processes and methodologies to actively create these effective learning environments for their children. Seeing this as an opportunity, in early 2020 an important pivot started in his model, where he created a peer-to-peer engagement model so that parents could support each other.

Actively engaging parents who are existing SMC members from the local community or those who are already engaged in their children’s journey, Saransh has created a national helpline which pays these parents for facilitating support conversations with other parents from low-income communities to support their requests and needs. These parents don’t just call into the helpline but a large database of them already exists from years of parental engagement. The Saajha ‘model parents’ make outbound calls to discuss with these parents the challenges they are facing, capture best practices and ultimately build a community of engaged parents who are taking steps to become more involved. During these calls, a diagnosis is done and the model teachers either refer to a large cadre of educational tools and resources that currently exist, or a database of past queries (which are recorded anonymously) and refer to other parents. The model parents can guide callers to these resources and explain to them how and when to use them effectively. For example, a father might call the helpline and speak about his child’s difficulty in reading in a local language. A tool that might be referred to is the Google Bolo platform, which is a free resource that caters exactly to this or even a specific government worksheet or workbook. Often the problem is not the availability of the resource but a lack of knowledge of where it is located and how to use it. These model parents fill this critical information gap.

When the challenges faced by these parents are beyond the home environment, the model parents can guide them to their local SMCs or administrators, being parents until the problem is solved. This information exchange goes beyond the mere transaction of solving a problem, it creates the social capital that continues to spread among these parent communities - effectively providing a platform that gives children from all backgrounds the opportunity to succeed.

A typical call is followed up by a 6–8-week journey of engagement, through an online platform that hosts multiple resources, the usage of SMS and IVRS for parents who are too busy to engage in phone calls and of course the availability of the mentor teacher whenever needed. This is to see through the progress and impact of the intervention over time and provides enough time for a habit to be formed. Further, many of these parents form groups to actively solve problems and implement the resources at their disposal together, paving the way for larger network impacts to occur.

Saajha actively captures feedback and data on how useful the resources are, which resources are directly used and how they contribute to several impact indicators, such as greater attendance, higher learning outcomes, parents' involvement at a household, community, and school level and so on. This data critically goes into the system to strengthen the huge swathes of resources that are available to support the learning outcomes of students and thus further improve the quality of material that is being produced. Furthermore, the data on the requests made through this platform is captured to streamline the process of support and strengthen the institutional capacity of the government to provide investment and support where it is needed most. For example, if there are data hotspots that show difficulty in engaging parents in one district, this data can then be used to explore the problem more deeply and understand the interventions that have worked. This strengthens the system capacity further. Parents who actively engage in the peer-to-peer platform are often invited back to a new role of a mentor parent later, thus creating a growth path for the parents themselves and setting an aspiration to work towards, beyond just helping their children.

So far, the peer-to-peer platform has reached around 10,000 parents in Delhi, with provisional agreement with the Delhi government to scale the model out to all public schools in the state. The pilots are also being spread out across partner organisations, such as Ashoka Fellow, Akshay Saxena’s after school centres, where there is direct access to thousands of parents across the country. Out of the parents engaged so far in the pilots, over 70% have continued to use the platform for over a period of six months with 72% stating they found it useful in understanding and acting on engagement in their children’s learning journey. A comparative study showed that almost 97% of parents now feel confident in being able to access the tools they need to support their children (compared to 41%) and 76.3% are actively helping their children study at home (compared to 51% at the beginning of the pilot).

Moving forward, Saransh is looking to scale this model and institutionalise it across state education departments. He has already been invited by several state governments to demonstrate pilots across the country. Finally, Saransh is looking to address the gap which exists at an ecosystem level on research and information about parental engagement from low-income communities in an Indian context. As a result of there being no evidence or research available, very few funders or supporters want to engage in solving the problem at hand. Saransh has partnered with the University of Glasgow and is in the process of striking partnerships with other academic institutions to closely study the journey of his organization and the larger systemic learnings when it comes to parental engagement in education in India.

The Person

Saransh was born and brought up in a small town in Uttar Pradesh by the name of Jhansi. The memories and influences growing up which prolonged was the encouragement that his parents gave him to be curious and question why things were as they were. This instilled the confidence in Saransh very early on to be able to talk through things about uncomfortable topics with a wide range of audiences. For example, Saransh questioned why his school, which was run by a Brahmin Trust, was giving certificates and amplifying upper caste students when their achievements were no better than others.

The other big influence in Saransh’s life from childhood was that of theatre. For Saransh, theatre was a means of expression and an opportunity to explore the world through many different lenses. Saransh attributes himself as being a kinetic person as a result of the influence of theatre in his life. This love and passion carried on with him to his schooling and college years, where Saransh led several initiatives to drive student participation in theatre. Saransh’s goal was to push students to experience differing perspectives through the art of theatre, hence becoming more communicative, expressive and connected to the world around them. Also at college, Saransh for the first time was actively involved in student elections, advocating on behalf of students on issues such as lowering fees and better amenities.

It was when Saransh undertook the Gandhi Fellowship, with Ashoka Fellow Aditya Natraj, that the influence of his parents again crept back up to him very clearly. As a part of the Fellowship, he spent time in a rural village in Rajasthan, where he was hosted by a family from a lower caste. The realness of caste discrimination was something he could not escape, and he particularly recalls the powerlessness he felt when the mother at his host family couldn’t help her son when he was facing issues at the school. This was due to power dynamics and perceptions which disempowered parental involvement. Saransh thought about the stark contrast between him and the situation this boy was in and how supportive his own parents were to his extended learning environment. Saransh started to explore and learn more about this problem of deep parental disengagement in children's education across low-income communities and actively started working with school principals to try and change this.

In fact, the second part of Saransh’s Fellowship took him to Mumbai, where he experienced and understood the problem even further. He not only witnessed the debilitating and disempowering impact of parental disengagement in their children's education, but he also saw the opposite from higher income, more well-resourced schools; how much parental engagement impacts a child's educational success. Saransh started to understand that the problem was more complex than shifting government policies or enabling parents to have a say, it was a behavioral issue and one entrenched in negative societal and self-perception towards low-income communities.

Saransh went on to set up Saajha in 2012, with the vision of ensuring that every parent or guardian in India could be an active and proud partner in their children’s education.