How One Woman’s Vision Has Transformed 1600 Children’s Education In Tamil Nadu

By Ananya Damodaran

Madhi is the Tamil word for ‘knowledge’. In 2015, Merlia Shaukath pioneered a non-profit in Chennai, naming it ‘Madhi Foundation’. Currently, Madhi implements a classroom enrichment program that focuses on teacher training and student learning outcomes – mobilised with the help of technology with an acute awareness of all the constraints that exist in under-resourced schools.

“I think the inspiration [for Madhi] was my time with Teach For India, and being in classrooms and seeing how the children’s lives were impacted. I wanted to bring the same impact in non-TFI classrooms as well,” says Merlia.

This year, Madhi will impact 150 schools.

Merlia spent two and a half years at Teach For India, first as an operations associate, and then as a government relations manager. These roles gave her a rare opportunity: “It took me to classrooms, but it also gave me the chance to interact with people within the system. A lot of my skill sets today were honed during that time,” she says.

Already armed with Masters degrees in governance and public policy, Merlia then joined Athena Infonomics as a policy consultant. She wanted to focus on the implementation aspect of policy, and figure out how to make systemic impact possible.

“It gave me the perspective I needed to take both into consideration – how policy can trickle down to the grassroots and how ground realities can impact policy,” she explains.

Merlia combined her understanding of policy formulation and implementation, and experience in the education sector, to start the Madhi Foundation. This process was not without its fair share of challenges. Getting people to have faith in a startup non-profit is not easy, but as Merlia says, “trust can only be gained with time.”

“If we continue doing the work we do, consistently and with an unflinching commitment to the cause we believe in, people will eventually start trusting us,” she says. Elaborating on Madhi’s goals, she says, “The way we see Madhi is that it’ll implement different programs addressing the various puzzle pieces in the education sector. Right now we’re working with teacher capacity-building and creating content for students. In the future, we’re looking at school leadership, and capacity-building of teacher trainers employed by the government in the system.”

Madhi’s work is tied to the interaction with the government systems currently in place. “Working with the government is exciting, but it’s also challenging because it requires a certain temperament. There are uncertainties and ambiguities, but the government is the only machinery that you can work with if you want to create impact at scale,” says Merlia. In one of her blog posts, she talks about the difficulty of settling on one system of education that is ‘the best’.

“At Madhi we do not believe there ever can be one ‘best way to teach’ children. We work with the core belief that children are unique, their learning needs different and their socio-cultural backgrounds diverse,” she writes.

They work with the system that is currently in existence, slowly trying to “chip away a few rough edges at a time.”

With this goal in mind, Madhi launched the ‘Transformational Academic Program’ (TAP) in June 2015. After conducting surveys and data analysis, they identified the practical problems teachers were facing in classrooms every day and sought to develop solutions.

“The Transformational Academic Programme is the result of a lot of learning, listening and empathising with what our teachers and children had to say,” writes Merlia. TAP provides teachers with bilingual scripted lesson-plans, a toolkit with all resources they require, and simple technological assistance with tabs and smartphones. TAP was implemented across 15 primary schools under the Corporation of Chennai’s Department of Education. It was implemented in class 1 and class 2, impacting 1600 students and 42 teachers!

Team Madhi

Madhi is on its way to becoming a critical stakeholder in the education landscape of Tamil Nadu, and is expanding its horizons to change our system for the better.

“Working to change the system is frustrating and exhausting, but it’s worth it, and with the kind of dedicated and passionate team that Madhi has, it’s an exciting journey despite all the challenges,” says Merlia of her long journey in policy implementation and the education sector.

It’s people and organisations like this, relentlessly pursuing equity, that will convert it from vision to reality.

Applications for the 2018-2020, Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Please visit to submit your application by October 29, 2017.

To learn more about Teach For India, visit

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