Mr. Vinesh Menon, Chief Executive Officer – Education, Skilling & Consultancy Services, Ampersand in a candid interaction with Education Today, enlightens the current K-12 education scenario, NEP 2020, technological trends and the future plans of AMPERSAND Group in detail.
Please walk us through the business footprint of Ampersand Group. How does Ampersand contribute to Indian education sector?
The AMPERSAND Group has been founded by Mr. RustomKerawalla, a first-generation entrepreneur who had the foresight to invest energy, time, resources, and capital to transform education services and delivery in India. What started as one K12 school 16 years back and is now a robust institution that offers quality education both in private and public platforms across India and select developing nations like Kenya and Rwanda in the realm of K12 school education, skilling & vocational education, continuous professional development of Teachers and other Education related services powered by cutting-edge technology platforms to enable scale without compromising on quality standards. While Education remains the fulcrum around AMPERSAND’s vision, the group has decided to foray into key verticals that drive sustainable development and apart from Education including Healthcare, Environment, and Agriculture. One of the success stories of Group AMPERSAND is the VIBGYOR Chain of K12 schools that drive value to more than 60,000 students across 40 schools pan India.
Please give us an insight into K-12 education across the world with a focus on India.
The years a child spends in K12 School education is perhaps one of the most important periods in their growing life as the experiences a child goes through during the ages 3 to 17 play a vital role in shaping their personality later. This is a universally accepted truth regardless of nationality. Different countries, however, have different flavours in the delivery of K12 education and it depends on the ethos, culture, and another country-specific curriculum, demographic diaspora, etc. Finland for example has a reputation for being exceptional in K12 education delivery, teaching is the most reputed profession there; the United States have public schools in every district and mostly attended by all sections of the society. Only 10% of children attend primary schools in Somalia and so on. India stands out due to its demographic advantage in terms of the sheer size of the children population, the democratic setup, and the diversity that exists across the states. India can ill afford to blindly copy Finland or England or Thailand…. they need to adopt a “Home Land” centric education by seeking best practices from across the globe and yet staying rooted to the deep culture of India. The recent National Education Policy that has seen light after three and a half decades reflects a unique combination of technology and emotional empathy to drive the best value for India’s children in the times to come.
What is unique about the education delivery in VIBGYOR group of schools?
VIBGYOR Group is unique in many ways as far as K12 education delivery is concerned. The three amongst many that stand out are (a) Scripted interdisciplinary curriculum methodology that combines experiential learning, project-based learning, theme-based learning, and activity-based learning that combine education delivery across multiple boards and bring out a blended learning concept for children through their formative and preparatory years to make learning more enjoyable for them (b) VIBGYOR schools are not franchised despite the scale and thus ensures standardization in quality delivery to make every child grow into becoming intellectually, artistically, aesthetically and morally responsible citizens of this world (c) Unique stand out features that include Top Class Infrastructure, Post School Activities like V – EMBARK, Sports and Cultural activities, Model United Nations Program and Inclusive Education.
Please elucidate on Ampersand association with the governments of Kenya and Rwanda.
The Government of Rwanda is transforming key verticals, education being one of them. We have associated with a very progressive ministry of theirs called Ministry of Information & Communication Technology (ICT) & Innovation (MINICT), Rwanda to convert two of their schools into “SMART SCHOOLS.” SMART SCHOOLS here refer to setting up a digital platform that can through a single sign-on enable the registration of schools, teachers and students, record school audits, deliver digital content on a Learning Management System through a scripted curriculum, entail continuous professional development for teachers through updated training modules, assess students digitally and above all digitally monitor and provide for MIS. The government of Kenya on the other hand had recently launched a competency-based curriculum for ECDE or Early childhood development education. They chose our learning solutions to aid students with new-age digital literacy that included Sample lesson plans, teacher guides, weekly schedules, animated videos and audios, worksheets, etc. The success of these programmes will launch our foray into the developing nations of Africa where education is undergoing a much-needed transformation.
What are your views on the National Education Policy 2020? How do you think this new policy will catapult India into the top educational hub? What, according to you, are key hurdles in the path of NEP implementation?
I believe there could not have been a better time than the Year 2020 for the National Education Policy to be launched. The pandemic had put brakes on normalcy in education delivery.The announcement of NEP 2020 after three and half decades provided the positive distraction for educationists and other stakeholders to understand and absorb the much-needed change that India required. India needs to have a very differently armed set of adults in the coming decades – the preparation for that needs to start now and the NEP provides just that. Initiatives like aligning Pre School learning to mainstream learning, multi-disciplinary choice of subjects, a new definition for Teacher Training & Empowerment, the levy for vernacular language introduction at early years, encouragement for the usage of technology for better learning outcomes, change in student assessments, and many more points have now ensured that the new policy is India centric and yet focuses to connect knowledge and deploy the same effectively. The context demands a repositioning, especially with India trying to seek its place and status as a competitive global leader in various dimensions of political, economic, industrial, and social designs. The policy will eventually create opportunities for exploring more skills and drive the passion for local enterprises to seek global markets.
What’s your take on the 5+3+3+4 pedagogical structure?
It is an absolute game-changer. The very verbiage changes – the 5 + 3+ 3+ 4 now reflects Formative Years (5), Preparatory Years (3), Middle School Years (3) and High School Years (4) – The change in verbiage will bring a focussed and thinking change to the content and delivery methodology – Formative years are crucial during early years and the shift to prepare the children to face middle and high school has its own sets of challenges. I believe it is a step in the right direction especially in the 3-6 year category which requires maximum attention.
The NEP states: “Wherever possible, students till Class 5 in schools should be taught in mother tongue/regional language/local language.” Your comments.
Language has very strong emotional and cultural content, thereby creating positive ownership and belongingness to the motherland and its tongue. This is also useful to help create a social fabric both at the national and global level for co-existence. The socio-political and economic growth dimensions do call for skills and abilities in multiple languages. The NEP move to enable learning at the formative level in mother tongue is a welcome step to keep the learners in comfort zones for purposeful and extensive learning. By making the three language formula more flexible accommodating the study of any modern Indian language as an opportunity, the decision of the government appears to be much broader-based and appeasing to all linguistic segments. The objective is to help children to have the freedom to learn through selective priorities of learners than to learn the way the policy warrants would be met through the NEP. Any suggestion to downplay the importance of language as against science and technology is an outcome of regressive thinking and inability to understand the diversity of India.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the fastest-ever shift of education to online platforms. What strategies have you adopted to cope up with this situation?
There are strategies in both private schools and public/government schools. In private schools, we quickly moved to recast the entire curriculum to be taught online through platforms that are proven, tried, and tested, and friendly to both teachers and students. Mind you this does not mean pure shifting of the existing curriculum online, it also meant restructuring the curriculum and lesson plans to help students absorb through a digital window rather than in person. Teachers had to be reskilled, content had to be reframed and we had to do it across 40 schools pan-India. We also designed special schemes in our fee structures to accommodate financial challenges encountered by a few parents and worked in collaboration to keep the learning continuous for children with minimal inconvenience to parents and yet drive motivation for our staff. With government schools, the objective was the same but the methods were different. We had to work closely with a few state governments who were very open to solutions to keep the teaching going – here the lesson plans had to be designed to have them delivered through less sophisticated platforms and we resorted to creating e-content for beaming through WhatsApp / TV channels. We also undertook teacher training in many government schools to get them initiated into the digital way of teaching.
How do you integrate technology & digitalization with operational excellence?
The key is to not let go of the fundamental practices that bring out the qualitative parameters of teaching. For us, operational excellence was a combination of our processes that included USPs like a Scripted curriculum, experiential learning for making studying more enjoyable, continuous teacher training, etc. All this called for focussed investment into technology to drive scale without compromising on quality. School education has a very strong dependence on EQ and hence we always propagated the “Phygital” model or the model that combines Physical presence with Technology – Get this balance right and technology & digitization will integrate itself into operational excellence.
What are the challenges you are facing? How do you see them as opportunities?
Challenges are many – From a macro perspective, the education sector is probably one of the biggest sectors in terms of size and yet fragmented and not cohesive like so many other sectors such as IT. This presents the opportunity. Again technology has been highly underutilized in a sector like education relative to the progress it has made in so many other sectors like travel, automotive, telecommunication, etc.This resistance to change towards technology again by this sector can show a window of opportunity. Ed-tech is important and we have started investing in it heavily because we see an opportunity for us as a group that can boast of being an ed-tech firm that has first-hand experience in running schools.
Can we have your views on how global investors are looking at the Indian K-12 Space?
I think the interest level is rising steadily. I would not be taking specific names but a little research will show that recent few transactions done in India around K12 included associations between a London-based global chain and a school in Hyderabad. Another prominent investment has been made by a large American investment company that manages multiple alternative asset classes like Private Equity, Real Estate, energy, etc into a leading pre-school chain in India. Smaller but significant deals have happened in regional states of India not to mention the tremendous interest shown by the foreign investors into the very fast-growing world of Education Technology
Would you like to proffer some useful tips/advice to budding education entrepreneurs?
I am no match for some of the passion and intellect displayed by the younger edupreneurs of today. However, I can assure the ones who have ventured into the world of education these 5 words of advice –
- Statistically, the education services and ed-tech services environment is very conducive to innovation and value growth to the customer.
- Drive change and product differentiators through technology but always remember that you are dealing with Education and that means young fertile minds. Always keep the best interest of the students at the centre of all your innovation.
- Work on geography spread and get into the interiors of India where school education is provided at Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500 a month.
- There is a definite market and customer segment out there for all to co-exist
- Never stop innovating – the child and student and teacher and outcomes are changing faster than you