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Outsourcing the ABCs

Fierce competition, ambitious parents and a dearth of teachers are spurring private schools to pay for a slew of products and services offered by firms, a trend some say will widen the inequalities in our education system. The education business| Some education products & services

business Updated: Nov 20, 2011 02:10 IST
Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj
Hindustan Times

Three years ago, trainers walked into Children’s Academy school in northwestern Mumbai and told Smitha Iyer, 45, who had been teaching English there for more than a decade, that everything she had been doing was wrong. They said that she needed to correct her Tamil-inflected English accent, that her chalk-and-talk methods were outdated and that she needed to quickly learn to use the internet to be able to access their software.

“They told me ‘p-o-e-m’ was not pronounced ‘poyum’ but had two syllables, ‘po-um’,” she says.

The private trainers were among the many outside resources that Children’s Academy has turned to over the past five years. It has hired services from six companies. For example, it uses software developed by US-based Waterford Early Learning that teaches four-year-olds how to spell and pronounce words; online tutorials in mathematics developed by Ahmedabad-based Math Buddy; and testing services from Educational Initiatives, also based in Ahmedabad.

It is among a growing number of private schools in India that are turning to companies to help them both with core activities, such as training teachers, designing curricula, lesson plans and exams, and sports training, as well as for logistical and infrastructural support, such as setting up computer labs and payroll systems. “Schools across the world are turning to private companies for assistance,” says Irina Kholkina, a Mumbai-based executive at The Parthenon Group, a Boston-headquartered consulting firm. “Hiring services from a trusted company gives schools quality content they might otherwise not have had access to.” The group estimates that India has more than 75,000 private schools.

Modern School in Delhi is another example. It has replaced blackboards with digital whiteboards and pre-recorded lessons to supplement teacher-led instruction. Its students also get an online ID that gives them access to a range of online resources. “Such software gives students an opportunity to learn at their own pace,” says Lata Vaidyanathan, the principal.

Educationists, however, caution that technology cannot replace teachers and that outsourcing inflates fees and thereby deepens inequalities in the education system. Moreover, not all services necessarily lead to better learning outcomes. (See the interview on the left below.)

Private schools say they face a range of basic problems, such as the lack of qualified teachers and outdated curricula. “These education companies thrive on the many gaps in our school system,” says Narayanan Ramaswamy, partner and head of the education sector at consulting firm KPMG. Says Rohan Bhat, chairman of the Children’s Academy group of schools: “If good English teachers were easily available, I wouldn’t have to rely on machines.”

Arundhati Chavan, the Mumbai-based president of the Parent Teacher Association United Forum, says parents should push schools to provide at least some of the services that these private companies offer. “They should focus on bettering the existing system and not be so ready to pay for what are not really additional services,” she says.

(With inputs from Neyaz Farooquee)

Taking sports to schools

Kids Out of Home or Kooh
Based in: Mumbai
Founded by: John Chandy, a former national-level basketball player, and Puneet Mehra, a former marketing professional

At John Chandy’s school in Coimbatore, sports education consisted of an instructor teaching the school’s children to do basic exercises in batches of hundreds. “If it hadn’t been for a sports club across the street, I would never have played basketball,” says Chandy, now 31, who quit his job as sports manager with the International Boxing Association in Switzerland two years ago.

With many middle-class parents keen that their children get a rounded education, Chandy and marketing professional Puneet Mehra, 39, sensed a business opportunity. “My five-year-old son was barely taught any sports in school,” says Mehra.

Kooh now has five schools in as many states paying for its services. DePaul’s International School in Mysore, which follows the ICSE curriculum, got a PE teacher through Kooh and then hired three specialist coaches — for athletics, basketball and swimming.

Woodridge High School, a CBSE school in Aurangabad, entirely follows Kooh’s sports curriculum, which includes evaluating children’s fitness levels using parameters such as nutrition, stamina and mental well-being. “The coaches also teach children about good posture and nutrition,” says the principal Smita Joshi.

Filling the skills gap

Based in: Gurgaon
Founded by: Shantanu Prakash, who got the idea when he was studying at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad

Shantanu Prakash, 46, started off by setting up computer labs for schools at a time when computers had just entered the country. The idea struck him when he was doing his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

“We are a country with a big focus on education, but huge problems exist in the sector, so there is a huge potential,” he said. “Even today, more than 100 million children are out of school.”

With a seed fund of Rs 1 lakh, Prakash started operating out of Ahmedabad with two employees. As the education market boomed, Educomp grew with it. By 1998, the company had launched several e-learning tutorials and an e-learning website. It posted a revenue of Rs 3.5 crore.

Today, it provides services to more than 20,000 schools in India and abroad, including in Singapore and Dubai. Besides offering e-learning solutions and help with curriculum development, the company has started a chain of pre-schools called EuroKids, schools and colleges.

“We have now entered the zone beyond K-12, into higher education, vocational education and training to address the huge skill gap in India,” said Prakash.

First Published: Nov 20, 2011 01:16 IST