Mumbai: The task seemed impossible. Lina Ashar had to teach English to a bunch of mostly male 14- to 16-year-olds, many of whom belonged to poor families in which conflict and abuse were routine. That was way back in 1989, when she lived in Australia.
Relying on her instinct, she set aside the works of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and taught her students by getting them to croon the lyrics, “We don’t need no education”, from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.
No classroom boredom: Lina Ashar of Kangaroo Kids at a group school in Mumbai. A child who has to study in a restricted environment cannot be faulted for not enjoying learning, she says. (Photograph by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)Rs.
“Yeats was so far removed from the reality of their lives that I had to find some other way to get them connected to learning the language,” recalls Ashar, now 44. “Almost instinctively, I knew what would work and what wouldn’t.”
That instinct was at play again when, in India some years later, Ashar founded Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd, which went on to become a franchise-driven chain of expensive schools that focuses on “learning by doing.”
Kangaroo Kids runs 60-odd preschools and Billabong High schools— so named in a nod to Ashar’s Australian links. More than 13,000 children of well-heeled parents, including leading sports and film personalities such as the actor Pooja Bedi and former models Marc and Waluscha Robinson, are taught in the schools.
Ashar says her exposure to a multiplicity of cultures helped her win success as an education entrepreneur.
Ashar’s father, a textile businessman who traces his roots to Jamkambali in Gujarat, took his family to Africa and Europe before settling down in Australia.
The second of three children, Ashar spent her early childhood in Tanzania and Kenya and did her primary schooling in England. She moved to Australia with her family in 1973 when she was 9 and went on to acquire a degree in education from Melbourne’s Victoria College.
While at the university, Ashar took a one-year sabbatical and came to India, and landed a teaching job at a leading school in suburban Mumbai, an experience that she says was an eye-opener.
She realized the school—like most in the country—followed a straitjacketed curriculum, leaving children no room for creativity.
This was vastly different from the milieu in which she herself had studied, one in which teachers used the flexibility of the system to enliven the classroom, she says.
“A child who has to study in a restricted environment cannot be faulted for not enjoying learning,” says Ashar, who went back to Australia to complete her degree with a resolve that she would one day return to India to work in the field of education, set up an institution where learning would be fun and not drudgery.
That opportunity came in 1993. Ashar started her first preschool in a 650 sq. ft Mumbai apartment gifted by her father, against the backdrop of a city in the throes of communal tension following the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent serial bomb blasts that rocked the city.
The school had 10 students and one teacher, besides Ashar. But as word spread, the number of students grew. “I think what worked is that parents saw a difference in their children—cognitively and emotionally,” she says.
Over time, enquiries started coming in from people who wanted to join hands with Kangaroo Kids and replicate the model across the country. The company now has requests from overseas—Maldives, Kuwait and Oman, for example—for schools to be set up there.
Vikas Phadnis, director for sales and marketing at EuroKids International Pvt. Ltd, another leading chain of preschools with a pan-India presence, credits Ashar with having defined quality standards in the preschool segment.
“When she started out, no standards or organized players were there. She has brought about a change in quality almost single-handedly,” he says.
Shekhar Ravjiani, a Bollywood music composer who sent his five-year-old daughter Bipasha to a Kangaroo Kids preschool, says she is happy there.
“What I like about the school is that the children don’t feel pressurized. With education, there is a lot of art and music,” he says.
There’s a price to pay, a lot by Indian standards. A parent whose son attends class III at Billabong High International School, Juhu, said the family pays Rs 53,000 in annual fees, besides Rs 11,000 for extra-curricular activities and Rs3,000 for the uniform. School transport costs extra.
Ashar says the biggest drawback of the conventional education system is that it does not take into account the different learning styles of children. There are visual learners who learn through images, mind maps, demonstrations and body language.
Auditory learners grasp lessons through the spoken word and kinesthetics through doing and interacting.
“Learning has to be made a cool thing,” says Ashar, who sports designer labels including Prada sunglasses or Dolce and Gabbana eyeglasses.
At the Billabong High International School in Santacruz, in suburban Mumbai, where Bipasha’s parents plan to send her next, students dressed in bright blue and yellow uniforms study in air-conditioned classrooms.
It has 24 students in each class, compared with 40 to a class in many private schools and 60 found often in government schools.
Rama Murarka, principal of the school, says: “Here the entire thrust is to ensure that the child is exposed to all-round development, without compromising on discipline.”
Competition and critics
Ashar has no lack of competitors and critics, even within her stronghold of Mumbai.
In 2006, one of her franchisees, the Rustom Kerawalla Foundation, with which she launched the first Billabong High school in the suburb of Goregaon, split from Kangaroo Kids and set up another chain called Vibgyor.
Kerawalla accuses Ashar of selling him a plagiarized curriculum and alleges deficiency in the supply of services including teacher training, and a general ignorance of rules such as how to set up a school that can earn an ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) affiliation.
“A lot of things went wrong,” said Kerawalla, who owned and managed three schools with Ashar providing the academic support and brand name. Kerawalla, a hotelier who now runs four schools independently, is in arbitration proceedings with Ashar. Both sides have claimed damages.
Ashar refutes the allegations, saying that the company has its own team of over 50 people working on curriculum development and adds that these issues have been sorted out. She says she’s learnt from the experience and moved on.
World of movies, malls
Education experts have more fundamental problems with elite schools such as the ones promoted by Ashar as well as the parents who send their children there.
“I call these parents the progeny-exporting community,” said Yash Pal, a professor and astrophysicist, who contributed to the preparation of a report that set in motion a revamp of school curriculum by the National Council of Educational Research and Training in 2005.
Elite schools “distance education from what is outside, never entangling with real issues and problems,” Yash Pal said. “They encourage kids to remain in a make-believe world of movies and malls.”
Ashar has plans that may appease critics. She recently hired a chief executive, former World Health Organization consultant Paul Solomon, to steer the company and is set to start a new project called Brainworks that will open no-frills schools teaching children from middle-income classes the same course material as at its more elite affiliates.
Brainworks is targeting a segment of the population that wants good education for their children but finds cost a limiting factor, according to Ashar.
Fees for the Brainworks pre-school, which includes a creche facility, will range from Rs18,000-30,000 per year (depending on the real estate cost in the area) and will cater to children in the age group of newborns to six years. At the lower end, the new schools will charge Rs1,500 a month, still a lot by Indian standards, but more parents will be able to afford this fee.
And Kangaroo Kids is experimenting with a different strategy to expand. It will no longer award franchises and will only enter joint ventures that will be partly funded by Kangaroo Kids, ensuring the company has a say in the running of each school that uses its name and stricter controls on the quality of education imparted there.
“You cannot have a McDonaldization of education,” says Ashar.