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Private Schools Only for the Privileged? Not in Southern India

Project Result / Case Study | 25 August 2015

The Hippocampus Learning Center is helping elementary school and kindergarten students from poor families in India move away from rote learning often offered at public schools.

Each morning, Monisha, an enthusiastic four-and-a half year old student in southern India, arrives at her preschool early, sometimes before the entrance gate is open.

“My daughter really loves the school and has been doing well,” said her mother Rekha, who like her daughter and most people in her village, uses only one name.

Monisha is one of 23 students at the Hippocampus Learning Center in the village of Chekkerre, about 70 km south of Bangalore. She is a small part of a global trend toward rethinking the way private education in used in developing countries.

Private education: a privilege for the many

Traditionally, private education in much of the world has been an enclave for the children of the privileged, while students from poorer families attended public schools. This is now being challenged, in part because public school quality has faltered in some areas. But also because many poor families have recognized that a good education is the key to improving the lives of their children – even if they have to pay extra for it. In response to this trend, private schools geared toward the poor, often with higher educational standards than public schools, have cropped up throughout Asia. Monisha’s school, which was set up four years ago, is one of them.

The Hippocampus Learning Center was established in 2010 by Umesh Malhotra, an entrepreneur and campaigner for education reform in India. Since it was founded, it has grown 20-fold with 137 centers supporting 4,200 students. Mr. Maholtra’s centers are thriving, in part because they address a specific problem in India.

“Many students are suffering from the Victorian-style education system where the teachers know everything and children are only expected to memorize subjects,” he said. “We are changing the way the children learn by using activity-based learning.”

In 2014, the Asian Development Bank invested $2 million in Mr. Malhota’s company so that the centers could add preschools in more than 700 villages in India’s southern state of Karnataka by 2016. The investment is expected to increase access to affordable kindergarten for poor children and better prepare students to succeed in primary school.

Sunita, the manager of the Hippocampus Learning Center in Chekkere, said that in the beginning it was not easy to convince parents in her village to send their children to preschool.

“Many parents didn’t see the importance of sending their children to an early education center until they had seen evidence that it could really help prepare their children better for primary school,” said Sunita.

Teaching children, training teachers, opportunities for all

Hippocampus Learning Centers use an innovative approach to hiring teachers. The centers recruit, train and hire women from nearby villages as teachers, rather than looking far and wide for qualified teachers, some of whom might come from distant communities and have little connection to the village where the center is located.

To move away from the rote learning system, the Hippocampus Learning Center curriculum uses a child-centered approach that promotes learning through fun activities.

"He came home from playing with his friends one day and said that he wanted to go to school just like other children in the village."

Mamatha, mother of student Chandan-Kumar

“We have to find a way to make the children love learning so we usually ask them to trace alphabet patterns and draw shapes to teach them language and math skills, and we also use rhymes, games, and storytelling. They enjoy them and it helps them learn how to read and write with ease,” said

Yogini, a Hippocampus Learning Center teacher in the village of Malaralli Taluk, who also uses only one name.

The centers charge fees of between Rs.2000-Rs.3000 ($37-$50) per year which can be paid in installments, and scholarships are also offered.

For Mamatha, the Hippocampus Learning Center is a chance to change the life of her five-year-old son, Chandan-Kumar.

“He came home from playing with his friends one day and said that he wanted to go to school just like other children in the village,” said Mamatha. “We could not say no to him because we want him to have the opportunity that we didn’t have when we were young so that he can have a brighter future.”