On the night of March 22nd, a few hours before India went into lockdown, Sumeet Mehta and Smita Deorah, founders of LEAD School, were communicating their BCP plans to their board members. However, it was already clear that this was a company thinking far ahead of the curve. Around 2 weeks earlier, well before the lockdown was announced, the company had already started looking ahead and planning for potentially wide-ranging school disruptions and closures. After announcing plans to start live online classes to support schools, the company had launched the LEAD School@Home program on March 16th. At last count, in early May, the LEAD School@Home program was live in 750 affordable schools with over 280,000 parents logging onto their re-purposed app, to enable their children to continue with their schooling.
Landscape & Context of the Affordable Private School (APS) Ecosystem
A significant majority of parents from India’s low-middle income communities choose to send their children to affordable private schools (typically in an annual fee range of $150-700). This choice is driven by 2 important criteria: a) potential for improved learning outcomes, and b) English as a medium for teaching – requirements that zero-fee Government run schools are largely unable to meet. Over the years, there has been a significant rise in enrolments in APS, with approximately 80 million students enrolled in the estimated 200,000 such schools across India. However, several of these schools are caught in a vicious cycle of poor learning outcomes >> low enrolments >> suboptimal economics >> low investment in teacher training and resources and so on. Existing solutions targeted at APS have not been effective in closing the learning gap – studies show that academic outcomes in APS are only marginally better than those in Government schools. Rapid smartphone and internet penetration, especially in lower income states, has significantly lowered cost of distribution. However low adoption rates and high churn for pure-play digital products point toward a large unmet need that is unique to this segment. This is the need that LEAD School’s integrated platform is fulfilling for APS owners, teachers and parents.
Although the LEAD School@Home program was rolled out in less than a week, it was far from being a hastily built ‘minimum viable product’. This was a product built on insights gathered through almost daily interactions with school partners, teachers and parents over the last 4 years. Having also run their own schools for years in towns like Mangaon and Kurduwadi (both semi-rural towns with a population of less than 30,000), the team instinctively thought like operators when the lockdown started and asked themselves 2 questions: “Why should learning for children stop?” and “How can we ensure that learning for children does not stop?”.
For the last 4 years, Sumeet and Smita have been building an organization with the mission of delivering excellent learning for every child in India. The insights from running their own schools and also evaluating existing offerings led them to focus on creating an integrated solution for school owners, principals, teachers and parents. The organization is already being built to handle massive scale, growing from around 150 partner schools to nearly 800 partner schools this year. It has built a fine-tuned delivery model and team that is poised to significantly improve learning outcomes for over 300,000 students this year. At the forefront of the solution is a technology platform that ties together the curriculum, teacher and parent engagement, and a school ERP system in an integrated manner. The result is a contextualized experience to the various stakeholders involved in a child’s education, through rich individualized data relevant to every child’s learning. The vision? To deliver excellent learning to 8 million children by 2025.
So when the Covid-19 crisis started deepening and schools across India started shutting doors, the LEAD School team was primed to jump into action. After ensuring the safety of their team and putting business continuity protocols in action, the leadership team’s focus shifted to problem solving for their customer. Nearly 10 days before the lockdown was put into effect, LEAD School had already announced a call-to-action internally: To resume learning for their students within a week, in the safety of their homes, and to help schools start the new academic year starting April 1st. Within 2 days of the call to action, technology and product teams had repurposed the parent app – which was being used mainly for parent engagement – to deliver live lessons at home. The academic excellence team had trained 40 of its members to start creating video lessons. The school relations team dove into communicating with school owners, addressing concerns, while offering a way to continue engaging with their students, teachers and parents. By the third day, after a detailed internal demo run, the LEAD School@Home program was launched, with 12 schools and 3000 students using the platform on the first day – each student continuing at the exact point where they had left off prior to the crisis! As of early May, the LEAD School@Home program has gone live in over 90% of their 800 partner schools, with over 9 million class views and over 10,000 teachers trained completely remotely.
Elevar’s belief in LEAD, based on observations not only over the last few weeks, but also over the last few years, arises from 3 things that are fundamental to their journey:
Goal orientation and urgency of action
LEAD’S goal is to make excellent education accessible and affordable for every child. This thinking coupled with their razor sharp focus on commercial viability has been key to their success over the last few years and weeks. Moreover, the strong values driven culture displayed by the leadership has been an anchor in building confidence, urgency and execution-orientation within teams. Even in creating a digital learning experience within the overall product construct, LEAD remains differentiated through a sharp focus on learning outcomes rather than ‘edutainment’ in every interaction with the child.
Every decision made by the organization is deeply rooted in design thinking, keeping the end user in mind, be it parents, teachers or school administrators. A deep understanding and empathy for the end user (and their individual context and priorities) significantly shortens the product development lifecycle and accelerates adoption curves. Each user can focus on their core capabilities and not be overwhelmed by choices of content and schedules. In the current crisis, for a parent, this means receiving a 2 hour timetable with content and activities curated to their child’s learning needs – a truly valuable proposition.
Breaking privilege barriers in education
Even in normal times, many existing solutions for affordable schools are essentially stripped-down versions of products created for high fee private schools or premium schools. However the lockdown and proliferation of online solutions have exposed additional dimensions of privilege and unconscious biases. Online learning solutions that are completely open source are fantastic at creating wide access, but put a significant onus on the user or parent on discovery and choice of content. At the other extreme, there are digital solutions that are so expensive for most parents that they need to be sold with bundled personal loans, but still remain unused! The current crisis (and lockdown) has reminded us of the value of schools as an enabler for parents to work and provide a livelihood. It has also shown us how even highly educated parents struggle to engage or teach their child, regardless of the ubiquity of slick content on tabs. Now picture the same situation in a low / middle-income household with 4-5 members in a 1-2 room house, and you start seeing the problem.
LEAD realized very early in their journey that being a school owner requires superhuman entrepreneurial effort and capabilities across academics, technology, financial management, people management, regulations and so on. It is challenging and lonely. Being a teacher or educator in an affordable private school is an equally lonely task with a daily reminder of being ill-equipped and without guidance. When a team combines deep experience and empathy with a commitment to ‘solve’ for these stakeholders – without compromise – the outcome is a solution that truly empowers these frontline warriors in India’s effort to improve learning outcomes. The success of the solution lies in the response from parents in small towns who have had a chance to see their aspirations for their children being fulfilled. You can sense this aspiration among the hundreds of parents sending in their gratitude – through awkwardly shot pictures and videos and through WhatsApp messages to teachers and principals – thanking them for partnering with LEAD School. The messages also convey a confidence that when the lockdown is lifted and these parents need to head back to work, their children can head back to school – for a multi-dimensional learning experience, where lessons from a phone or TV screen remain a part of their education, but are not the whole. Little do they realize that their children are receiving better quality education, engagement and more personalized attention than what most aspirational higher-fee schools have managed to deliver through this crisis.