April 04, 2020
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Riding The Riverdale High

From sprawling luxuries to crummy edu-shops, schools are becoming big business, and spoiling parents for choice

Riding The Riverdale High
Gireesh G.V.
Riding The Riverdale High
  • The share of education in consumer spending has soared from 1.70 per cent in 1993-94 to 2.14 per cent in 1999-2000.

  • Big business families like the Ambanis too have entered the arena, setting up international level schools.

  • Denmark’s Egmont International has set up a chain of 129 pre-schools, Eurokids, in India in the last two years.

  • The Shemrock brandname has added 35 more to its chain of preparatory schools in the last four years alone.

  • The number of private schools in education hub Dehradun has hit 250. Some 35-odd have come up in the last three years.

  • The Pune zilla parishad has received 32 applications in just the last 20 months for starting private schools.

  • The Jain group of Bangalore plans to set up about 100 Jain International Schools in the next 10 years, each at a cost of Rs 22 crore.

Somewhere along the drab, dusty monotony of the Delhi-Jaipur highway, a milk-and-cream Greco-Roman style building makes a stunningly sudden and absurdly anomalous appearance. The discovery that it's not a luxury motel, but a school—the Starex International School, village Binola, district Gurgaon, Haryana—is even more staggering. Who would send their child to this strangely located "day, week and full boarding" school? Well, in what is its first academic year, Starex already has 167 students, each paying up to Rs 1.9 lakh a year. This, for promised international and cbse affiliations, air-conditioned hostels and transport, tennis, golf and horse-riding facilities, gymnasium, a 20,000-seater cricket stadium, and state-of-the-art all-weather swimming pools. The school has cost its promoter and chairman Mohinder Singh Rs 50 crore, and the astute Germany-based businessman is convinced he will recover it. In fact, he has just taken over five more schools in Delhi: "They'll be feeders to my boarding school, we'll get the numbers. Indian parents have long been waiting for superior schools. It's a demand crying to be met."

Hundreds of education entrepreneurs wholeheartedly agree with Singh. The Great Indian School Bazaar is booming as never before. In a country where demand for good schools has traditionally outstripped supply, and a new generation of upwardly mobile parents want to give their children only the best, businessmen of every hue—realtors, traders, hoteliers, industrialists, nris, franchisee chains—are setting up schools. For, interestingly, though government policy and a landmark 1993 Supreme Court ruling prohibit profiteering in education, schools are permitted to make an "excess of income over expenditure": "excess" that is expected to be used towards further development of the school. In practice, school promoters often charge for consultation, management, catering, special coaching facilities and other such services, and eat up the "excess".

"People have realised that in these times of recession, schools make for regular, stable income," says Dehradun-based education consultant Shomie Das. "And given our growing population, the demand for schools will only increase. The land and infrastructure remain assets forever. Plus the respectability and status that come from being in the education business are intangible profits." No wonder Das is working overtime these days to facilitate the starting up of new schools in Delhi, Dwarka, Sonepat, Hyderabad, Varanasi and Allahabad, among other places.

Erupting all over India are new playschools, primary, middle, secondary and higher secondary schools, day and residential schools, single-sex and co-ed schools, local and international schools. "The real estate, infotech and biotech booms are over. Now it's the school boom. It had a low-key beginning about four, maybe five years ago, but has reached its high these days," exult Des Raj and Bimla Arora of Shemrock, a chain of 46 preparatory schools in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Thirty-five of these schools opened in the last four years alone. "It's not just people with big cash who are opening schools. Small-time property dealers, loss-making factory owners, retrenched software engineers, you name it, they are all starting schools these days," say the Shemrock owners.

The signs are plastered across Hyderabad's Begumpet flyover, the city's most coveted advertising hotspot: five billboards publicising new schools compete with each other for attention.Aggressive promotion is now an imperative in this city where parents willing to fork out between Rs 30,000 and 1.2 lakh a year are being spoilt for choice. At last count, at least half a dozen "upmarket" schools were to open for business in Hyderabad by the coming academic year.In Pune, the zilla parishad which tracks middle and high schools has received as many as 32 applications in the last 20 months—most of them over the last year—for starting private schools. In Calcutta, realtors have taken to building schools. Pradeep Sureka, promoter of a school in the upcoming South City housing project, is going to start one by 2005 to "provide all-round development of the child". Which means his school will have a gymnasium, a multi-purpose hall and a swimming pool. Two years ago, the Denmark-based Egmont International Holdings—which has interests in children's publishing and entertainment—launched Eurokids, a chain of franchised pre-schools, in Mumbai. Today, Eurokids has 129 pre-schools across nine states, 79 in Mumbai's western suburbs alone (see Tot for the Day: No Work and All Play).

Forget the metros. In Dehradun, which has traditionally been synonymous with education, Sandeep Dutt's Guide to the Schools of Doon, puts the private school count at over 250. But that hasn't discouraged promoters here from investing in nine big and about 30 small-sized new schools in the past three years.

Chetra Pal Dang, owner of the Inder Lok hotel in Dehradun, bought the building that originally housed the junior section of the renowned Welham Girl's School in 2000, called it Doon Girls and positioned it as the only girls' preparatory school in Dehradun: "I'd seen parents staying in my hotel to prepare their daughters for admission into good schools. I realised a school like mine was needed." And 20 km from town, the SelaQui School, where construction is still on over a 52-acre campus, already has 117 students in its second year. Its making cost a neat Rs 17 crore. Its USP: a fibreoptic network of workstations and "knowledge interface points", learning labs that recreate the "virtual environment" of the subject. Says chairman Om Pathak, "We are rooted in tradition and are ready for the future. Parents will sniff us out."

Just two academic sessions old, the residential-cum-day Asian School in Dehradun's posh Vasant Vihar area is already living up to promoter Amarjit Singh's expectations: "Convenient location, reasonable fees, quality education—all these have paid up." But even with satisfied parents of the school's 900 students giving their positive feedback to the market, Singh reckons it will take about 10 years to break even on the Rs 15 crore investment he has made. But he is spending lesser time in his limestone business nowadays: "Unlike any other business, running a school leaves you feeling fresh at day's end."

Even well-established institutions like the Delhi Public Schools Society, a name recognised nationwide for school education, have decided it's time to expand extensively. "We go wherever we are needed," says chairman Narendra Kumar. And with the "need" for good schools on the upswing, he adds, "We are 114 schools today—with a presence in big cities, smaller towns, even abroad. We could be more when you ask us next!" Dashing off to Calcutta for the launch of the latest addition to the dps family, Kumar takes pains to explain that dps' frenzied expansion spree isn't about blindly giving its name to just any franchisee. It's about joining hands with worthy "collaborators" and strictly monitoring schools that run under its brand name: "Because these three letters, dps, are very precious to us."

But won't so many new schools lead to a glut in the market? The enthusiastic new promoters don't think so. Indians are spending more on educating their children than ever before. The share of education in consumer spending has risen from 1.7 per cent in 1993-94 to 2.14 per cent in 1999-2000 (this even as consumer spending itself has increased manifold). But the promoters aren't taking any chances either.

Some schools in Dehradun are known to employ agents in Bihar's small towns to lobby for clientele. Others launch recruitment drives in countries like Thailand and Nepal to rope in students and yet others, it is rumoured, pay commissions to cab drivers to bring in parents. Engaging PR firms and hiring ad agencies, unheard of in the school sector till recently, is commonplace now. Brand-building exercises, snazzy brochures and lobbying for media attention are seen as strategic essentials for a school's success. Says Bashiruddin Babukhan, realtor and promoter of Hyderabad's new Glendale Academy, "I'd rather sink my money into building infrastructure than in ad agencies, but am left with little choice, considering the aggressive publicity by competitors. Instead of relying on newspaper ads and billboards alone, I've come up with innovative promotional ideas like distributing balloons with our school's name on them."

No surprise then that brochures of the Jain International Residential School, 40 km from Bangalore, stun. Catchy copy promises billiard tables and bowling alleys, sauna and jacuzzi, microlite flying and parasailing...little wonder that the school is home to 680 students within four years of its starting. Scale does matter, chairman R. Chenraj Jain has come to realise: "I plan on setting up 100 schools across the country over the next 10 years, each costing about Rs 22 crore."

And even before it has started, the Rs 75-crore, 30-acre Pathways World School, nestling in the Aravalli foothills in Haryana's Gurgaon, has announced having snagged the Design Share Award-2002 from a New York-based body of architects for "innovative school design". And Pathways has more beyond slick design: laptops with wireless internet for every student of Grade VI and above, an intranet for anytime-anywhere learning, an amphitheatre, a media centre, studios for art, music, dance and theatre, air-conditioned classes, swank study-bedrooms, temperature-controlled corridors, swimming pool, Olympic-sized football field—the school's a wonder in marble and granite. Plus, affiliation to two international boards will ensure that "children passing out from here won't need to spend a bridge year to be accepted by the most reputed universities anywhere in the world". Then there's a British headmaster, John S. Taylor, formerly principal of British, American and international schools in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. The super scale of the project will make it succeed, feels promoter Prabhat Jain. Among his stated "laurels" is designing and fabricating India's largest chandelier that "hangs even today" at Hotel Mughal Sheraton, Agra: "Today, parents want their children to have the same lifestyle in schools that they have at home."

But Manit Jain, owner of the Heritage Schools, who opened his first school in Delhi four years ago, has a qualification: "Great infrastructure, flexible, friendly environment only help attract parents, after that it's about academics".Two new Heritage Schools are starting this session, and sure they have air-conditioned, sound-proof classrooms, sensor-operated washrooms, ozonated mineral water, indoor swimming pools, even mobile phone-toting bus drivers. But most Heritage brochures talk of curriculum, multi-grade and remedial teaching, and examination system. In a similar vein, Lt Gen (retd) Arjun Ray of Bangalore's Indus International School, built at a cost of Rs 22 crore, says, "Our edge over others will be our teachers; they'll be role models and facilitators, attending six-week-long teacher development programmes every year."

Much like Pune's four-year-old Mercedes-Benz International School, which, having provided just the "right" infrastructure to attract the children of corporate bigwigs, has now focused only on bettering learning.Says director John Bastable, "We want to achieve a 1:10 teacher-student ratio." Likewise Atul Chauhan, president of the Amity Universe, a group that has started three of their five schools in and around Delhi in the last five years, says, "Nothing but good education can sustain a school. It just has to be purely social service."

Presently though, it's mostly monetary and not missionary zeal that's driving the current boom. As Hyderabad-based Jaya George of Schoolnet, an education services provider, says, "The very same reasons for setting up so many shopping malls in the city lend themselves to the school boom here." His vast experience in "education facility planning" has convinced Gulab Ramchandani of Dehradun-based Ramchandani Education Consultants that, of the hundred people setting up schools today, "twenty will do honest work, while 80 are there only to make money."

Elaborates John Mason, headmaster, Doon School, "Education has graduated from being perceived as a social activity to being a commercial activity. It follows then that new schools today have commercial savvy, a market sense that drives these institutions. They identify their niche, emphasise their facilities and work at building their brand." Which may all be fine. Except that, Mason suggests, such five-star schools might ultimately make children insular to children from economic backgrounds different from theirs and lead to the diminishing role of families in raising them "since schools these days promise so much". Education consultant Sumer Singh points to a much more immediate fallout: "Many of the new schools are run personally by the owners. They interact with parents and students. This affects staff morale and performance, and reflects poorly on student discipline." Only those schools that are run by professionals, he believes, will survive in the long run.

In the interim, however, along with the new posh schools, those catering to the lower-end market will also proliferate. These are mostly hurriedly set up education shops in crummy buildings with no playgrounds or trained teachers. Recently, the Central Board of Secondary Education decided to withdraw the 'ad hoc' affiliation extended to 208 such schools in Delhi, some running in spaces as constricted as 200 square metres.

But in a country where 110 million children remain outside schools, criticising even these schools seems like nitpicking. As for the school boom, it probably means nothing to children who have never seen the insides of a classroom.Optimism, however, dies hard. As Shashank Vira, head of the education infrastructure at the Infrastructure Development Finance Company Limited, observes, "Till now, schooling was largely demarcated into government provision and pockets of private enterprise, both distrustful of each other. The present scenario, driven by a supply-side bias, is a period of churn. What will emerge are models of public-private partnership in school education." But till that happens, the boom will be beneficial to many a parent, insists Amarjit Singh of the two-year-old Asian School: "The poor in our country never had any choices for the education of their children. Why grudge those who can afford it the choices they now have? Because even if the new schools provide poor education, they are at least giving some parents a few more choices." The writing on the blackboard then is not all grey.

Soma Wadhwa with Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad, Priyanka Kakodkar in Mumbai, B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore, Harsh Kabra in Pune and Manjira Majumdar in Calcutta
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