Nikita Ketkar

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
India
Elected in 2020
Because of the pandemic, Nikita Ketkar was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Nikita is mainstreaming night schools in India in order to allow millions of citizens who are day workers to receive a formal education. In doing so, she is paving a path for a higher skilled, more productive, and deeply engaged workforce.

The New Idea

Lack of access to a proper and quality education deprives millions of people in India from reaching their full potential. In fact, 62.1 million youth drop out of schools in India, many of them to provide for their families economically. Once they are stuck in the cycle of earning, education is often a foregone opportunity. When Nikita went to explore the problem further, she realized that there existed in India very few ‘Night Schools’ that were run privately or by missionaries, to bridge this exact gap. Starting her journey by understanding the existing structures and systems around these schools, Nikita understood that the vast majority of these students who came after a long day of work, deserved an experience that was much better than what they were getting.

Night schools were being conducted in dilapidated rooms, with dim lighting and poor teaching quality. Nikita realized that reforming these night schools and bringing them to the same quality and accreditation as day schools could turn them into a platform to give access to education for this large population group and would provide a huge opportunity to develop the country’s human capital. As a first step Nikita recognized the importance of ensuring that dignity was connected with these schools, advocating for night schools to be run out of the same infrastructure as day school premises. When she was able to see the success of this change, she knew that a complete reform was necessary, bringing the same quality, delivery, and format of education to this population. Since then Nikita has not only been advocating for the expansion of night schools but she has also been building the whole system to support people who are enrolled. Through Masoom, Nikita is also increasing the employability skills of these students to get better livelihood opportunities and helping them move up the economic ladder through new knowledge and skills.

Nikita recognized that if she can transform end to end a number of schools and show positive social, economic, and financial outcomes, then she would be able to work with larger stakeholders to integrate the concept into the system and ensure acceleration of new night schools. With this, she understood that people enroll at night schools for two main objectives: firstly, the opportunity to finish their primary or secondary education, and secondly, for a support system that can help them secure better jobs.

Nikita’s school transformations start with understanding what is needed/lacking in these schools and then creating a plan to shift this around. For example, Nikita has been able to work to ensure that quality teachers are present in all schools across primary and secondary education as well as for soft skill training. Nikita is also building a network of employers who can directly hire graduating students from these schools.

Nikita is engaging all stakeholders in the process. She involves important stakeholders like the government by giving them access to her curriculum and placement network which will result in easy replication of the model to other states. She also partners with NGOs that operate locally, through whom Masoom is reaching out to poor and low-income communities that are interested in establishing or improving night schools in their locality. In many schools, community and school management have collaborated to create a formal management committee which takes ownership of the school. Nikita has also created a tool through which they are able to monitor the performance of the schools and through which they can see where there is need to intervene in improving the program; otherwise, the school is left to the community to manage and sustain. By handing over ownership to local communities, there is a much larger incentive for them to drive its success.

The Problem

Poverty, accessibility, and availability are the foremost reasons for school dropouts in India. Under the Right to Education Act 2009, youth until the age of 14 or until 8th grade have the right to free and compulsory education in India. However, over 61.2 million youth drop out of school before completing primary education. Even after having free access to education one of the major reasons for drop outs is to engage in economic activities so that they can support their family. Once they are involved in any economic activity, it creates a dependency and it is difficult to get out, thus hindering any opportunity of completing an education.

Other than poverty and accessibility, there are very few schools available that can cater to the needs of people who work during the day and where they exist, they are run privately by missionaries in most cases. The quality of these schools is a big problem, as they are not on par with the day-run schools and have none of the facilities such as free meals, availability of subsidized stationary, or access to good quality teachers. This lack of accessibility and availability of school infrastructure takes away any chance of a sustained education and further perpetuates the push to work in the unorganized sector with meager salaries. Most importantly, the full potential of the individual is never realized, meaning that the full potential of the country is not being met. In India, Maharashtra is the only state that has night schools in place; however, there is nothing being done by the government to support the implementation or to ensure adherence of quality.

These night schools not only lack proper infrastructure – the managers of the school often have to pay rent – but teachers are often hired for longer hours after their day jobs while are already paid very poorly. The problem is exacerbated because night schools are fundamentally seen as an act of charity as opposed to a fundamental right for people seeking to better their lives. While students come to these schools with the hope of developing themselves and ultimately providing for their families and communities, the incompatibility of the system of night schools as they currently stand often damages the self-belief and motivation of these students. Many of them come with hope and aspirations and end up dropping out with the same indignity that they have lived through most of their lives, without any chance of getting a proper education.

The Strategy

Nikita established her organization, Masoom, after conducting a thorough research study to understand the current plight of night schools that existed in India. Realizing the enormous potential of the concept to cater to the needs of an enormous population and the need to stimulate a supply of new schools all across the country, she developed a model that reimagines and repurposes the roles that all stakeholders play at the schools.

As a first step, Nikita realized that there needed to be equity brought to these night schools, putting them on par with what a student would get during day school. She started by shifting the schools from broken and ill-equipped buildings to using the same infrastructure (same premise) as government run day schools. In addition, Nikita realized the importance of auditing the infrastructure in these schools and where needed, investing in ensuring the availability of key resources such as whiteboards, computer labs and also human resources. Nikita works with day school administrators and stakeholders to ensure that all available public resources can be utilized to bring the infrastructure up to par, which benefits both night and day school students. Nikita realized that the dignity attached to attending a system that legitimizes the process of education plays an important part in not just educational outcomes but also the likelihood that a student would stay in the school and not drop out.

To further develop schools’ capacities, Nikita ensures that training resources and toolkits are given to both teachers and students so that they are able to complete their education, which is already mandated under the Right to Education Act. This includes the provision of subsidized stationary, which goes a long way to ensuring that students are able and excited to attend class.

Similarly, through advocacy Nikita is making sure that teachers who are present at these schools are properly trained, paid, and resourced. This plays an important role in shifting the dynamics of how the curriculum(s) are being received and delivered, adding dignity to both the students and teachers. An important component of Nikita’s model is to ensure that there is community mobilization around night schools. Nikita’s advocacy has been able to influence the state government to include the ‘midday meal’ that is delivered in day schools to night school students as well. By shifting the night schools to have the same rules and standards as day schools, the legitimacy of the concept is being recognized by the larger society and there is increasing demand for them.

Nikita works with stakeholders around the students, such as their larger families, local NGOs and other key individuals that are part of the local community to take charge of the school. These community members often create school management committees (SMCs) which are also a mandated part of the Right to Education Act, so that there is a governing body that is constantly looking out for the welfare of the students and the betterment of the school. In many schools, the sustainability of the schools’ finances and operations is maintained by the community themselves. Nikita has discovered that when you give ownership of the success of the school to the community, there is greater incentive to ensure long-term quality.

The second integral part of Nikita’s intervention is to ensure vocational skills are being delivered to the students so that they can develop soft skills necessary to adapt to a rapidly changing workplace. Nikita is bringing in the vocational skilling courses that helps students to build their capacities, develop their confidence, learn skills such as interview techniques and so forth so that they are able to find further employment and negotiate for their rights. Another important component of Nikita’s work is to create a network of employers to provide placement to people looking for better jobs after attending night schools. By ensuring that the supply side of employers is strengthened, there is a greater incentive for students to take their education seriously. Furthermore, Nikita is helping change the perceptions of employers to see that these students who often do come from marginalized backgrounds, are also adept and capable of contributing to their organizations.

In order to scale this concept to other states and cater to the large demand for night schools, Nikita is open sourcing and passing on her ‘success’ framework to local organizations and NGOs who already have well established trust in communities. The techniques and capacity building together are provided so that the local night schools can meet the highest standards of quality as well as be sustained over time due to community ownership. In order to ensure that quality is maintained, Nikita has created a tool that can assess the performance of schools, from the quality of its infrastructure to academic and teacher performances. Through this tool, the administration can rank where the school stands and see where the greatest need of intervention is, at the individual student level, teacher level, as well as school level.

So far, in partnership with the Maharashtra government, Nikita has been able to work with 82 night schools, many of which were opened after Masoom intervened. Since 2018, Masoom has worked with over 15,000 direct beneficiaries and 250 teachers have been trained under the night school curriculum. There has been a positive impact and increase in the pass percentage of SCC students from 36% to 66%. Masoom has partnered with the Maharashtra government to become one of the official textbook partners; this recognition enables night schools to receive textbooks at a discount which helps in saving costs and providing for more students.

In 2013, Masoom set up a career cell that provides short-term and long-term skill development courses for students who have passed their basic education. The cell supports students to identify their interest and then help them secure a job aligned with those interests. Through the career cell, Masoom has provided career guidance to more than 2500 students and has directly helped in job placement of 532 students with an average salary of Rs. 10,000.

Moving forward, Nikita is also looking to work with other state governments to scale her idea. She has successfully signed an MOU with the Gujarat Government to implement her program across all government schools for both primary, secondary, and vocational skills colleges. As the night school concept starts to be adopted across the country, Nikita sees her role as ensuring that she can keep innovating to ensure that students can get access to the best quality of education that leads to a satisfying and fair job. She will work with the schools, state governments, and partners to strengthen M&E frameworks, ensure that student placement cells are common at all schools and that the system itself can be adopted to cater to the dynamic needs of the student population.

The Person

Nikita grew up in a small city near Solapur in Maharashtra. Growing up under the influence of her strict grandmother who made sure she completed household chores before leaving for school, gave Nikita a sense of great discipline early on in her life. Her father, a doctor and also a social worker, worked in local slums and treated the poor for free. Seeing him work tirelessly for a purpose gave her inspiration to one day create impact in the lives of others through her professional career of choice. Over the years, Nikita moved to Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra to pursue her education. She was always a bright student and wanted to get into the Indian Civil Service, which she did only to realized that this was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Nikita took an early retirement and started working in social sector with few NGOs. In 2006, Nikita initiated a participatory research project on the condition of night schools in Mumbai slums. She realized that while the condition of these schools was poor, the passion and rigor of the pupils coming to study was inspiring. She realized that a large group of India’s population wanted to develop themselves, learn new skills and broaden their employability through education, only to be limited by a lack of a proper system. Nikita realized that this population could not give up their livelihoods during the day and so there needed to be a strong and compelling alternative. Identifying the high potential of night schools to cater to this audience, Nikita started to put together a strategy to mainstream the concept of night schools in India. She subsequently started Masoom.