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by Credit Suisse

Nurturing a lifelong passion for knowledge

Two young students are talking excitedly about the future. Their focus is not on acquiring personal wealth and status; they want to help grow their parents’ cotton farm, and make their village a better place for families to live. Their attitudes and ambitions can be traced back to their pre-school experience at Hippocampus.

Founded in 2011 in the state of Karnataka in south-western India, Hippocampus Learning Centres focuses on pre-school children between the ages of 2 and 6. Its goal is to instill a lifelong passion for learning during the key Early Childhood Development (ECD) phase, with the aim of making positive changes to all levels of Indian society. 

Umesh Malhotra, founder and CEO of Hippocampus Learning Centres, says Hippocampus empowers children by making them self-learners from a young age. “We notice a difference in the cognitive development of those children who attend kindergarten and those who don’t. As they've continued into primary grades, these children have also tended to outperform their peers.”

Overcoming parental prejudice

Malhotra says it is these gains, as well as instilling the importance of giving back to communities, that will help Hippocampus convince parents of the value of its programs. Many parents in rural areas do not see the point of sending their children to school at such a young age.

“At the beginning, when people came and saw a classroom at a Hippocampus Centre, they would see children playing. ‘I’m sending my children here, and you said they would learn. But I don’t see you teaching. I see them playing. How will they learn?’ 

“It’s a mindset shift for them to understand that children learn and socialize that way,” explains Malhotra. “In India, learning is understood as a very serious activity, while the Hippocampus culture is about playing and having fun. So, parents find it unnerving to see children playing in class when they expect them to be learning in a more traditional way.”

With a combination of proof of their children’s progress and regular contact with teachers, Hippocampus has overcome skepticism to the extent that parents’ tuition fees fund a significant proportion of Hippocampus’ mission, together with equity investments from organizations such as Asian Development Bank, Khosla Impact Fund and the United Seed Fund.

The Hippocampus method: playful learning

Hippocampus has adopted the modern approach of addressing the holistic development of the child. The organization’s core three-year program is built around age-appropriate play-based experiences and activities and is designed to be both economically and culturally appropriate to the communities it serves. 

By the end of the program, more than 85% of children have attained basic literacy in both English and Kannada (the local language) and basic mathematical skills.

Hippocampus seeks to continue to accompany the children on their educational journey through its Primary Schools Programme, launched in 2014. Partnering with private schools in rural areas, Hippocampus involves itself at all levels of the school structure, with aims including improving enrolment rates; raising teachers’ capacity, motivation and retention; and improving student achievement.

A focus on the teacher

One of Hippocampus’ key achievements has been hiring the right candidates and then training them to become capable, motivated and committed teachers. “Getting the right person and empowering her to be an amazing teacher through the right training has been our main driver of success,” confirms Malhotra. 

The pronoun is significant, as Hippocampus’ teachers are usually young women from the local community who show a strong commitment to children and education, who go through an intensive training program. This training introduces the teachers to different educational practices and how to manage a class of children with different learning levels and needs.

They are supported with regular training sessions and provided with suitable teaching aids, including a detailed lesson plan, helping them to feel confident in the direction in which they are taking their students.

Taking the Hippocampus program worldwide

Since its foundation, Hippocampus has opened more than 225 pre-school centers, as well as seven primary schools in India. And this is just the beginning.

“We have a model which is scalable, extremely affordable, and has proven to show results. Hippocampus has been able to provide ECD for children for as little as US$60 per year,” Malhotra enthuses. “Looking beyond India, we are exploring opportunities in other emerging economies like Africa and Latin America, to make an impact there and convince them of the importance of ECD.”

To give an idea of the scale of Hippocampus’ ambition, Malhotra says it plans to increase its four centers in Mexico to over 50 by 2020. “This has been our journey so far,” he says. “Over the next five years, we want to see Hippocampus become a primary driver of ECD on a global level.”

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