The focus should be on assessment pattern reform as opposed to policy reform. If the questions remain same—people do not change.
Amol Arora, MD, Shemrock and Shemford Group of Schools
What is the secret behind this extraordinary growth of SHEMROCK—from being the oldest preschool chain in India to being termed as the best school for innovation and value-based education?
In SHEMROCK, we passionately do what is right for children. While taking any decision, we only think about their interests by putting ourselves in their shoes. This is in sharp contrast to many private players who are only concerned about making profits and that clouds their judgment. Where greed is involved, people generally try to maximize profits by taking wrong decisions which impact their short-term bottom-line. However, I am not ready to compromise with quality. If any typical money-minded individual(s) approaches me for a franchise with no passion for education, I do not go ahead with them. At the end of the day, my reputation is at stake and I do not want parents feel that they are getting anything but the best at a tremendous value-for-money.
Secondly, there are no hidden costs in SHEMROCK. Once an admission fee is taken in advance, it serves as an annual one-time investment/expense of the parent. We never demand funds for stationary, chart paper, pencil, crayons, ice cream sticks or for the child’s birthday celebration. If we take them out for a picnic, we usually do not charge extra. Majority of the schools do business over these small issues. However, parents now are smart enough and they can easily see that they are being fleeced. Is it an wonder that the image of schools has taken such a beating because of the greed of a few rotten apples!
Last and the most important secret behind SHEMROCK’s success is Meenal, my wife. She has been an important driving force behind the extraordinary growth of SHEMROCK. Meenal is an amazing academician and ensures that our curriculum and quality remain world class. She was recognised by the Ministry of women and child development as a part of the 100 Women achievers at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
What made you embark on this journey of academic leadership?
SHEMROCK was actually my parents’ dream. They both were university professors and had no intention to set up a billion-dollar company. They started the preschool with the sole focus on a child’s inquisitive mind and on concept clarity. It was not really a business for them. They were happy with whatever they were earning. I used to help from the age of 14—not thinking of it as a career but just to help my parents—especially in the areas on technology and marketing.
Being an engineer and MBA, I felt I was living the dream life in Southern California—working in an IT organisation in the US, but I felt, something was missing. My boss, Vijay, identified what that ‘something’ was! He pointed out to me that I should go back to India and join Shemrock, as that was where my heart was. My parents, initially, were not very sure of the idea of me joining SHEMROCK. We, then, had only 15-20 branches in Delhi. During one such conversation with my father, I took the final call of coming back and returned from the USA in 2002.
Eventually, I joined and took it as my full-fledged career. Then I got married to Meenal, who was working with Hindustan Times then. We had no human resource department in SHEMROCK at that time. Meenal joined SHEMROCK as an HR and gradually fell in love with this project. We decided that if we want to grow nationally, we have to be structured. It is very easy signing projects but it is hard to maintain the quality. Making promises is easy—delivering on promises is the challenge. We took the ISO: 9001 system but realised we had to go beyond the ISO system to ensure that quality is maintained as grow nationally and globally.
Today we are setting up more than one school every week and have a presence in 625 locations in India, Nepal & Bangladesh. Enquiries are coming in from other countries.
We are supported by Chhota Bheem and Friends—India’s favourite cartoon character. We have been invited to share our success story at conferences across the world, as they want to know how we are growing successfully while maintaining such high standards. Numerous awards and press coverages further attest to the success of Shemrock & Shemford Group of Schools.
What was the concept behind starting SHEMFORD?
We had land in Pinjore, near Chandigarh and we were running a branch of SHEMROCK there. The DPS Chairman came to visit our school and was amazed at the structure of the building. He proposed to my father that we should expand it to 10+2 segment, however, my father was not very confident about the idea. We were assertive about the pre-school sector and secondly, as we are based in Delhi, we thought, it would be tough for us to run a secondary or senior secondary set up in Pinjore. Then, we decided to make it a DPS—however; we realised that DPS does not have any internal system and therefore, had to create the whole school system from scratch.
Meanwhile, as we were gradually growing outside Delhi-NCR, requests from parents came up that we should extend classes in the same school. I used to be encircled by the parents in every meeting. Parents would repeatedly share how their elder one had studied in Shemrock and now goes to the most popular school in the city but misses Shemrock. They kept asking me to start our senior school set-up.
Our franchisees were confident that they would do well and were ready to invest. So, we took the plunge—started our first senior school project at two locations. Gradually we started six branches the next year, 16 branches in the year after that. In fact, we grew so fast that we were mentioned in the Limca Book of Records 2013 for ‘opening the maximum number of schools in the shortest possible time’. Today, our model is proven with branches all across the nation—from Kashmir to Assam to Tamil Nadu to Gujarat!
What are the positive and negative sides of this franchise-based set-up?
Entrepreneurship is full of risks. The prime risk is choosing the right franchise. I wish I could select the right person through any blood test. Jokes apart … the trust we have built over the years needs to be retained. I just cannot let it go. We try to learn from our mistakes and analyse how could we have avoided such a situation. While signing a deal with any group, we try to comprehend whether they are into education or into money making. If I can guess it well in advance, I never sign the deal with them. If it is just for money, then there are plenty of businesses out there, why to involve education in business? The most rewarding part of a school is the happiness and satisfaction one receives. We deal with the children first hand and that gives enormous happiness.
Coming onto the risk factor again, another aspect is maintaining the standard at diverse locations. It needs to be exactly the same everywhere; otherwise we would not be able to meet parent’s expectations. The same curriculum and lesson plan run across all the branches simultaneously.
Here lies a challenge. We cannot afford a lavish support system everywhere. If I plan to set up a SHEMROCK in Patna, for instance, it is not possible to send my team over there for a fortnight. The strength of playschools is really less and revenues are not that much. Therefore, planning has to be very cost effective. At the same time, parents should feel that it is much better than local play schools. We cannot depend on an individual for this quality. Everything should be dependent on system and not people. We, therefore, rely on technology extensively to deliver and maintain standards in our branches.
Have you faced any challenges in choosing teaching staff for these franchise-based set-ups in remote locations?
Challenges are inevitable in education. While recruiting teachers, we try to evaluate how enthusiastic they are about teaching. Once they start working with us, we send them everything—lesson plans, chapter briefs, activities, videos, etc. and this enhances the quality. Since we are into education, a lot of research and development is done. Content is been developed. Every teacher undergoes weekly webinar and we are ready for any further assistance.
Meenal is involved in content and curriculum design for the group. We mostly develop our own content but again being a diverse country—there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’. We got feedback from UP and Bihar that the Hindi curriculum is comparatively poor. We started working on it and now we have three different Hindi curriculums running simultaneously—One is for Tamil Nadu and other southern parts of the country, one for Bengal, Punjab, and Gujarat (where Hindi is a second language) and the third one is for MP, UP, Bihar, and Jharkhand (where Hindi is a bit advanced).
How do you manage all these things together?
You have to set priorities at work and categorise them accordingly. My life is thoroughly scheduled. Everything is planned and systematic. I believe in less but quality work. My entire week is pre-planned. Even my leisure hours and the time I want to spend with my child are scheduled. I do not give deadlines to my staff in the office. They give me deadlines. We have a weekly scoring system for all employees so they know exactly where they stand. We extensively use KPIs and Dashboards to everyone’s progress as the whole organisation should be aligned and headed in the same direction.
Every Government comes up with one or the other fresh policies. What revolutionary change the new education policy is about to bring, according to you?
Whichever government comes in the centre—they mostly have good intentions of trying to improve the education system of the country and that is appreciable. However, they also come with their own philosophies and try and change social sciences as their propaganda—which is unfortunate.
The existing National Curriculum Framework drafted by NCERT is so well structured, nothing else is actually required. Challenge lies in the implementation of any policy in India. There is pressure on the government to make it more innovative and creative. A segment of the population is now exposed to the International Board. They have experienced how learning should be. Our classroom culture is very different from that of international classrooms. Children are actually taught things hands-on. Because of global exposure and internet, everybody is aware of what is happening outside and there is nothing one can hide. On the other hand, we have a large population which lives in extreme poverty. Therefore, the aim to have a single system for such a diverse population should be stopped. I would like to see more initiatives in 21st-century learning techniques, so that our children can stand up against the best in the world. CBSE-I was one such initiative—good in intention but badly executed. It had to be stopped. This is typical of government initiatives in education—I feel the government needs to involve the private sector in implementation. The government has the resources and reach but the private sector is better at implementation as there is an answerability and accountability—which is absent in the government sector.
Holistic development and project-based learning are in discussion but nothing would change until the examination policy changes. We are too dependent on marks/grades. Nobody cares about proper learning; the child anyway has to score good grades. We cannot blame parents because this has become the rule of society. Any revolutionary change is not possible overnight until any better solution comes up. I am hopeful Artificial Intelligence will enable us to create more holistic assessments that will result in better all-around learning and development.
Our syllabus also needs a revamp. I do not understand how Physics, Chemistry, and Biology can be identical for Engineering and Medical entrance examinations. Both need a different skill set. Children have nightmares about mathematical formulas, trigonometry, calculus …why every child go through this gruelling curriculum! A more holistic assessment has to be framed and we are not too far from that. Other than scoring marks, we have to teach them empathy, human-to-human relationship, creativity, thinking out of the box, teamwork etc. The whole concept of knowledge and information today needs to be questioned. I do not feel any policy would bring that change. This is the worst thing about the government’s role in the education sector. They keep on announcing policies one after the other.
We are a democracy. Everybody has the right to voice his or her opinion. If something unethical is being done, people can certainly raise their voice. The ultimate aim is to educate our children. Private players want some return on the capital they have invested. However, the core aim of education should not be compromised.
Nations like Singapore and Japan are thinking way ahead of the curve and we are still living in the dinosaur’s age—still stuck to CBSE, NCERT, rote learning, question and answers—and the world has moved on. A child who has joined us today will be graduating 15-20 years later. The way we are teaching them right now, will not equip them to meet the challenges of tomorrows workplace for sure. The entire education system along with the work culture would change a lot by then. Therefore, assessment pattern needs to be changed. Let us take an example—a child, who is a budding musician, would derive no benefit from solving trigonometry problems. Eventually, parental pressure and our marks-based assessment system will kill the ‘musician spirit’ in that child’s heart.
The Indian Government and education boards are dealing with parents who have high aspirations. In fact, they want their children to get an education on par with the standards in developed nations. But, how can a single size fit everybody? CCE was a very good approach but it was badly executed. When something new is implemented, it raises complaints. Some complaints have the loudest voice. If that voice reaches the policy makers more than the people who are actually happy using it, they roll it back.
Childhood is long lost. What would you say?
You are right. Our education system has put an immense pressure on children and the increasing aspirations of parents to put their child in the rat race to be on the top has resulted in a child losing their childhood to all work and no play. Students start preparing for the entrance examination from 6th std. Where an all-round development could have happened, the child might have excelled in many new horizons, instead, they are just becoming engineers or doctors. Parents do not find other professions suitable. I have realised that many students who were not academically sound in class, have actually excelled in life. Those who had spent their childhood in boarding school are usually more successful in managing work-life balance, and in managing relationships. They know how to survive for six months without pocket money or basic needs.
It is not necessary that students who excelled in academics excel in life as well. There are some people who were toppers in school and college but they are not happy. It might be possible that they wanted to pursue something else. Parents should understand their children, give them some space, and teach them empathy that we are lacking.
You are an inspiration of hundreds of educators across the country—what is the plan ahead?
I would like to continue the growth story of Shemrock & Shemford across the country and in newer territories via franchising. Our aim is to create a win-win education and business model for everyone— our children, parents, franchisees and ultimately for ourselves and the country.