Amitav Virmani

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2015
The Education Alliance
This description of Amitav Virmani's work was prepared when Amitav Virmani was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .


The poor quality of education in public schools is leading parents to abandon public schools and opt for private schools for their kids instead. To ensure universal access to quality education, Amitav is engineering an ecosystem design that transforms public school management towards learning outcomes.

The New Idea

Amitav believes that to improve the quality of education at scale in public schools, the role of the government should shift from that of an administrator to a facilitator and regulator. He sees opportunity to combine the infrastructure and budgets of the public sector with the innovative pedagogical and school management techniques from the private non-profit sector.

Amitav is advocating for whole school management of under-utilized or abandoned public schools, by non-profit operators. He is organizing the different pieces- the research, policy, impact assessment and funding - to bring diverse ecosystem players to deliver quality education in public schools at scale. Building allies and roles for the public, private and philanthropic sector, he is designing the whole school management system on the principles of system efficiency, innovation, autonomy and accountability. He is launching this framework across India and is currently at advanced stages of lobbying with the Government of Madhya Pradesh to introduce this policy. He has also been successful in advocating with the Municipality in Delhi to invite and fund operators to run underutilized schools. Alongside advocating with more state governments, Amitav is also working to ensure that there is a sufficient pipeline of private non-profit operators and is putting in place effective mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability.

Through these advocacy efforts and partnerships, Amitav envisions building models of excellence within the government system that can then be replicated by more states. He is committed to facilitating different players towards effective implementation of this policy and system.

The Problem

While India has made significant strides in improving access to education, the quality of education itself is facing a huge crisis. India’s 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rank is 73rd out of 74 participants. The ASER 2013 shows over 40% of children in Grade Three in rural public schools can not read simple words or recognize numbers between 10 and 99. The ASER Reports over the years show that the gap between quality of learning in public and private schools is widening. For example, in 2010, 86.5 % and 93.9% of grade 2 children in public and private schools respectively, could at least read the alphabet. In 2014, this has dropped to 67.5% and 88.2% respectively.

Disillusioned with the quality of government schools, parents are increasingly opting for private schools, many of which are unrecognized. This is evidenced in the fact that between 2007-2013, while overall enrolment in school peaked, enrolment in government schools from grades one to eight declined by about 11.7 million. In contrast, the enrolment in private schools went up by 27 million, from 51 million to 78 million children.

As a result of this shift to the affordable private sector, many government schools are now under-utilized or abandoned. For example, the 2014 ASER Report states that the percentage of small primary schools (those with enrollment less than 60) has gone up from 27.3% (2010) to 36% (2014). In the state of Madhya Pradesh alone, it is estimated that 10,000 schools are under-enrolled. In Kerala, the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan has classified 3,523 schools as ‘uneconomic,’ because they have less than 60 students registered.

Unfortunately, this trend condones the failure of public schools. The government is not held accountable for providing quality education to children. Further, for only marginally better education provided by affordable private schools, the poor have to incur additional expenses from their already limited disposal income. There is an urgent need to address, curb and reverse this trend in India to ensure universal access to quality education.

To achieve this, there is a need for schools to be dynamic and innovative in their curriculum and pedagogy. Unfortunately, with the mandate to operate and manage a large number of schools, the government is not equipped to facilitate this.

Public private partnerships offer great opportunity to harness the strengths of both the public and private sector to provide quality education at scale. Global evidence suggests that whole school PPPs are particularly effective in demonstrating innovation and quality. Woessmann (2005), in a study of student-level data across 35 countries, found that public funding and private operation of schools are positively associated with student outcomes.

While government aided schools have existed historically in India, private operators have been able to invest in the infrastructure but with limited autonomy to run the schools. These programs do not offer an opportunity to improve the quality of education in the many existing under-utilized government schools. Further, while some state governments have granted rights to private operators to run public schools, they have been granted on a case-to-case basis, based on the interest and openness of the relevant officer in charge and reputation of the provider. More importantly, the operators have not received any financial support from the Government. Further, there are no clear stipulated norms to ensure accountability or transparency on school management or outcomes.

The Strategy

Recognizing the strengths of existing public, private and citizen sector players, Amitav saw the opportunity to organize and orchestrate them to deliver quality education in public schools at scale. So, rather than starting bottom up and acting as an operator managing public schools, Amitav began by designing solutions at a systemic level. He is building the demand from the government, supply from the non-profit sectors and investment from philanthropists.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Amitav believes a collaborative effort is critical to build the architecture for public school management in India. Towards this, he founded The Education Alliance in May 2014 in partnership with four critical influencers and investors in the education space in India - the Central Square Foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Omidyar Network and Absolute Return for Kids (Ark).

He conducted a landscape study to understand the global experiences in public school management, including charter schools in the USA and Academies in the UK. This gave him deep insights into the elements and principles that contributed to their successes and failures. Alongside studying global experiences, Amitav also launched a study in India to look at the learning outcomes, social and emotional well being of children from public schools that are currently run by citizen sector organizations. He intends to compare this data to that from Government operated schools to have credible footing to make an informed policy recommendations to governments.

Amitav also held multiple discussions with operators, funders and experts in India and outside. From these dialogues, Amitav drafted the policy that enables municipalities to invite non-profit operators (CSOs) to run and transform public schools. Structural principles in the design of the policy include that

(a) private non-profit operators should have autonomy to introduce innovation

(b) the Government should reimburse private operators the full amount of per child costs in a timely manner to ensure financial viability and adequate incentive to improve learning outcomes and enrolments

(c) full transparency in selection process of operators

(d) high accountability standards with well-defined evaluation and assessment methods and

(e) clarity of intervention policies and termination procedure for non-performing operators.

Based on these principles, the policy envisages the Municipality entering into an agreement with the operator for a period of 15 years. The public authority would be responsible to provide infrastructure, cover cost of utilities and operational costs (cost-per-child), be responsible for structural changes in the school and extend benefit of government schemes to students. In return, the operator would be responsible for enrolments, agree to admit all students, hire teachers and bear administrative costs. The operator will also have autonomy to prepare its own calendar and introduce innovative pedagogy.

The policy envisions the creation of committees (composed of members from the municipality and citizen sector) responsible for identifying schools and selecting non-profit private operators to set out broad criteria and processes for the same. It also outlines processes and parameters for reporting, monitoring, and evaluation and criteria for selection of third party assessment agencies. For instance, in the first two years metrics like improved student enrolment, teacher and student attendance, parent engagement is given a weightage of 80% and the remaining 20% is given to metrics like lower dropout rates and student learning outcomes using tests based on principles inform the 2005 National Curriculum Framework. From year three onwards, the weightage is flipped to 30% and 70%, respectively. As per the proposed policy, if a school is found to be performing below expectation, the school is given a notice with constructive feedback. If performance still does not adequately improve, the agreement is terminated. At this stage either the school is required to close, or another provider is sought to take over the running of the school.

Education is a subject matter of the state and central government. But rather than pushing for a national policy, Amitav believes buy in from the state level will increase effectiveness of implementation. He has identified key states to influence and is moving from state to state to introduce this policy. In each state, he is using different strategic entry points and tactics to gain buy in from the relevant authorities. Over the last year, the Education Alliance has been advocating and lobbying with different levels of the Government in the states of Madhya Pradesh and cities of Chennai, Delhi and Pune. The policy advocacy is now at advanced stages in the state of Madhya Pradesh. His efforts with the Delhi Municipality has led them to invite an expression of interest from operators to take on two to ten schools. Based on its success and outcomes, the government will consider effectuating a policy. Next he plans to initiate dialogues with the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Amitav seeks to evidence impact in at least 1000 schools across India that can serve as models for more states to adopt. Amitav recognizes that efforts on the demand side, or even policy from the Government alone, will not suffice. Towards this, he is working to build the pipeline of operators in India who can operate more schools. Having deeply studied the methods and impact of different operators, he believes that only few operators in India are designed to scale across different cultural and social contexts and limitations. To bridge this gap, he is engaging with some operators in USA and UK to build their capacities to enter India. Having raised sufficient funding for his organization, he is now building a pipeline of funding for operators to scale their capacities to take on more schools. As governments adopt this policy, he also intended to support the salary of an executive in the initial years to champion the idea and execute the model internally.

In the long term, Amitav envisions The Education Alliance to be an organization that facilitates different players towards effective implementation- the government to open more schools, building capacities of operators to scale and assessing organizations to evaluate outcomes.

The Person

Amitav was the third generation of a family with a strong business background. He grew up seeing his grandfather and father running different enterprises as well as several charitable trusts. His family foundation ran schools for children, adult literacy classes for women, scholarships for needy children to pursue higher education and had a deep level of commitment to empowering their labour and extended community.
He was sent to the Doon School – a premier boarding school in India, at an early age. Boarding school helped Amitav discover who he is and thrive. Sports played a central role in this process for him. He excelled in squash and played at the national level for close to 15 years. It consumed a dominant part of his time and he travelled to different states and countries to play tournaments. It was also his entry ticket to St. Stephens for his graduation.
After working a few years in his family food business, Amitav decided to pursue his MBA in the US. Business school threw new challenges for him. His father also pushed him to support his own education. Amitav taught golf, coached squash and took on internships that helped him cover the $60,000 fee.
Upon graduation, Amitav worked in the pharmaceutical sector in the US and later came back to India to be closer to his family. However, he began to feel stagnated and sought to explore doing something more purposeful. Belonging to a business family and being the only son to his parents, Amitav always thought he would have to take up the family business at some point. However, when his father was diagnosed with cancer, this assumption was challenged. His father shared that he had never really had a choice in doing what he did and pushed Amitav to pursue his dreams. While Amitav had started shouldering and taking over the management of the different profit and non-profit initiatives that the family ran, these conversations liberated him. This trying period also made Amitav realize that the real asset he inherited was the goodwill his family had created among the employees and the community. Being more directly involved in the charitable trusts also gave him a closer understanding of the social sector.
He discovered his love for children and education, but was not interested in starting more schools. When he heard Ark was looking for a country director in India, he took the opportunity. At Ark, he led significant changes that repurposed the organization, which was only doing leadership training. He was quick to recognize that Ark spent over 500 times the salary of the leaders to train them. Not able to justify it to himself, he convinced and took the Board through a difficult change. He convinced them to open high quality schools in partnership with the Government. He also worked with the state of Madhya Pradesh (2nd largest state by size in India) to launch a Quality Assessment programme. He built successful relationships with the State to introduce the schools quality assurance program - to ensure that schools are regularly visited and evaluated for high standards for overall management and learning outcomes. This initiative is now being officially adopted across the state (40,000 schools).
It was while working with the government in Madhya Pradesh and also Ark’s work in the UK in running Academies that Amitav began seeing the opportunity for more public-private partnerships. He joined hands and actively engaged with partners who were pushing for the PPP policy in Mumbai. Initially, he saw his role in Ark as a funder, when he delved deeper he realized the need for a larger framework and an orchestrator to make this idea a reality. This triggered his decision to leave Ark and found The Education Alliance in 2014.