Home / Politics / News /  DPS franchises keep reinventing the brand

New Delhi: Among schools from across the country, one name comes up over and over as a trusted brand — Delhi Public School, or DPS.

It has been around long enough to compete with convent schools, yet is continuously reinvented in large cities and small towns year after year as new franchises open to surging demand from parents for quality private schools.

Varied inputs: (top) Maqsood Ali Khan, who runs three DPS schools in Bangalore, sitting with students in a classroom. He says he is against the DPS Society’s attempt to send principals of old schools to new ones because he wants his own teachers to get promotions. Hemant Mishra / Mint. (above) Meenakshi Singh, owner of DPS Sushant Lok in Haryana, says both entrepreneur franchisees and the school chain have gained from the association. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

The school chain now has 115 schools in India and 13 abroad — a reflection of communities from smaller towns to Dhaka, Bangladesh, seeing the arrival of a DPS as a sign of progress.

From its first school at New Delhi’s Mathura Road in 1949, DPS gradually introduced the franchise system of education. First public sector companies and later on entrepreneurs were encouraged to open independent schools.

The franchisees pay the Delhi Public School Society — comprising retired bureaucrats, judges, ex-army men and former school principals — a royalty for the use of the DPS brand name and logo. In return, the society nominates half the managing board of each school, besides offering academic support in the form of experienced principals to new schools.

In education circles, the franchise system is viewed with suspicion, but some experts are appreciative of what the DPS brand has achieved.

“In franchise schools, there is sometimes a problem of quality — how much are you able to maintain it across schools? But the DPS system has been able to provide relatively affordable schools to a large number of people," said Sridhar Rajagopalan, an Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, alumnus who heads Educational Initiatives Pvt. Ltd, a company which tests students on their understanding of concepts as against rote learning.

Though his company does not share data of specific schools, it did say that DPS schools did better than average in the tests. Rajagopalan’s colleague, Sudhir Ghodke, who visits the schools to market the tests, said the brand exercises quality control in different ways.

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“The DPS group moves senior principals...to new schools to provide leadership support to the new school and, backed with a centralized teachers’ training component, they do work towards ensuring a basic standard across the new and established schools," Ghodke said.

The DPS chain’s growth, though, has given rise to its own set of problems. An ex-president of the DPS Society has charged it with discriminating between its own 11 schools and the franchised ones.

In an August letter to all owners of schools, Salman Khurshid urged franchisees to ask for the right to vote for the society’s chairman, a position currently held by retired bureaucrat Ashok Chandra, and the right to review the society’s finances.

Intertwined in the fight between Khurshid and the DPS Society are issues ranging from the use of influence to secure admissions to expensive junkets enjoyed by the society members at the expense of the schools.

The society ousted Khurshid, who took the battle to court.

The court has appointed Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and a DPS alumnus, who describes himself as a “sleeping member" of the DPS Society, to mediate in the fight.

The schools are wary, unsure if Khurshid is fighting their battle or his own. But as admissions across the country begin for the next academic year, parents are lining up, hoping to get their children in. Mint highlights three DPS franchises — and the entrepreneurs behind them — worth watching.

Embracing change

Meenakshi Singh, who runs DPS Sushant Lok, in Gurgaon, Haryana, represents the “new" DPS, one that embraces change.

In a quiet corner of the school, Singh is talking with the headmistresses of the junior and senior schools. From discussing the traits of children, the chat moves to teachers. It seems one found it embarrassing to swim in a public pool, afraid she might come across a student while dressed in a swimsuit. The three shake with laughter as Singh, 35, describes how she herself stopped wearing short skirts, even to private parties, when the school started admitting older children.

Singh is the daughter of high-flying former bureaucrat N.K. Singh, who rose to be a powerful player in the Prime Minister’s Office during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term, and is now a member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. (N.K. Singh is a member of the board of directors at HT Media Ltd that publishes Mint. Shobhana Bhartia, chairperson of HT Media, is also on the managing committee of the school that Meenakshi Singh runs).

It is clear from Singh’s conversation that having powerful connections opened doors for her. But getting permissions for her school from the Haryana government and then affiliation from the Central Board of Secondary Education, a school graduation exam most DPS schools follow, was an uphill task, she said.

“I come from a background where I was enjoying myself," said Singh, among the youngest school owners or “pro-vice chairmen", as DPS calls them.

The high life has given way to school management. On a round of the airy campus, located in a posh neighbourhood, nothing escapes her notice, from a dirty floor to delay in the arrival of equipment in the laboratory. Her workday includes an hour-long meeting with a parent who wants the school to employ a special educator for his child, identified with attention deficit disorder.

She chats with other DPS owners on her handset, and is in the middle of negotiating a date for making a payment for land in Patna, Bihar, to start another school. “You know I don’t do anything on Saturday, because of Shani ," she tells the person on the other end of the line, referring to a belief that Saturday is not a good day to begin new projects for fear of anger of a deity.

DPS Sushant Lok, launched just three years ago, has 3,000 students who pay a monthly tuition fee of Rs2,500. It is yet to add the senior secondary grades of classes XI and XII.

Singh’s success is linked inextricably with that of the school chain. Educational Initiatives’ Ghodke says the established brand allows schools to grow quickly.

“The growth (of student population) of the DPS school, wherever it is launched, is very rapid. The new school aims to go full strength fast — usually between 1,000 and 3,000 students in three-five years — unlike most other schools that aim to grow more slowly," said Ghodke.

A confident Singh, who rides horses for fun and travels with a personal security guard, says entrepreneurs are not the only ones who have benefited from DPS’ brand backing.

“We have benefited from DPS (Society), but DPS has also benefited from us," she said.

Supplying demand

Maqsood Ali Khan, on a holiday from work, is relaxing in his father’s sprawling official residence in New Delhi, guarded by sandbags and an armed commando.

But talk about schools, and the relaxed posture gives way to reveal a passionate speaker. Khan, son of the deputy Speaker of the Rajya Sabha, wants to open a DPS school in every district of Karnataka.

The three DPS schools he runs in Bangalore — DPS Bangalore South, DPS Bangalore North and DPS Bangalore East — will soon reach the capacity of 3,500-4,000 students that was Khan’s goal.

Khan says the profit — or surplus, as it is called, since schools in India are run through charitable trusts which do not disclose their earnings to the general public — from these schools can be used to open new schools.

“The other schools have to compensate (new ones)," said Khan, 39, whose applications for one more DPS in Bangalore and another in Mysore are pending with the DPS Society.

Indian parents’ hunger for private education, more than anything else, may ensure that Khan’s dreams get fulfilled.

A March report from brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific estimated that students in India will spend $40 billion (Rs1.9 trillion) on education in 2008. Half of this — $20 billion — will be spent on the kindergarten to class XII segment. Total expenditure on education will touch $68 billion by 2012.

The report said India’s 75,000 private schools account for 7% of total institutions, but enrol 40% of the country’s 219 million students — even as some 142 million children are not in the school system (government statistics put out-of-school children at 7.1 million).

Khan and his wife, Shazia, whom he met and fell in love with by hanging outside an all-women’s college, themselves are parents who wanted a seat in a good private school for their son, now 13.

Application at a prestigious school did not yield much, he says, except rejection couched in awkward questions. That prompted him to open his own school, something he had mulled but not acted on.

The first school in Bangalore — DPS Bangalore South — got 430 students when it opened admissions in March 2001, even though a campus was yet to be built. Khan had already invested money in land from his previous entrepreneurial ventures, including an eatery.

Different strategy: Ranjoo Mann, who runs DPS Sonepat, says most schools spend money on building brand value, but she chose to allocate those funds to developing infrastructure. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

The second school — DPS Bangalore North — was established in a family-owned farmhouse. For the third school, Khan mixed a loan and personal funds for buying land.

Not everything succeeded, though. Khan’s attempts to start a hostel in one of the schools met with failure — students were too undisciplined, he found, so he sent them packing back home.

Khan has recently schmoozed with other DPS owners; 40 of them met each other for the first time in June. Khan favours student exchange programmes between the DPS schools, which are located in all parts of the country.

This networking among the schools has a deeper agenda. Franchisee schools oppose a planned move by the DPS Society to raise the annual royalty that franchises pay to the society from Rs5 lakh to Rs25 lakh.

The schools also want the society to have a smaller role in their functioning.

In a series of recent meetings, four school owners met the society’s chairman to reduce the number of its nominees on schools’ boards of directors and change the role of the board to an advisory one.

Khan declined comment on these moves, but was vocal on the society’s attempt to introduce principals of old schools in new ones — something he opposes because he wants his own teachers, who he says work hard to earn promotion to a principal’s seat.

He also plans to raise monthly tuition fees, Rs1,450 now, to raise teacher salaries.

Alternative methods

Perhaps Ranjoo Mann, who runs DPS Sonepat in Haryana, and her philosophy are best described by the pack of Marlboro cigarettes on her desk.

No, she does not smoke.

The pack was confiscated by teachers from a 14-year-old. Suggestions from faculty for the student’s reprimand ranged from suspension to other strict forms of punishment.

Mann used a dose of reverse psychology; she offered him a cigarette to smoke in front of her.

The move worked, though the culprit himself disagrees with Mann’s methods. “She is good, kind, sometimes too kind. It makes us feel we cannot do anything bad," said Zothanfela Pachvau, the shy rebel from Mizoram who is now experimenting in other ways that challenge adults. Such as colouring his hair.

Mann, a svelte 43, glides through her school in a cotton Kerala sari. The 12-acre campus has air-conditioned dormitories, a golf course and horse-riding facilities.

“The kind of money you waste in building brand value, I wanted to use that in building infrastructure," said Mann, who started DPS Sonepat in 2005. The school now has 1,100 students, including 200 — some of them from South Korea and Thailand — who live on campus. “Since DPS is tried-and-tested, it would be a better school than one I (would have) opened on my own".

Monthly tuition fees at the school is Rs1,200-1,800 for day scholars. Annual tuition for boarders, including lodging, is Rs1.5 lakh.

Mann made the Rs7 crore investment in the school in Sonepat, which is also a hub for privately run engineering and business schools and has earned something of a moniker as an education city, through a combination of a bank loan and family money.

Her husband is from a family of landowners, and runs three dealerships of two-wheelers and motorcycles of Bajaj Auto Ltd, the country’s second largest two-wheeler company by sales.

The school holds extra-curricular meets on weekends — a mix of music, theatre and sports.

Mann, whose interest in education began when she started teaching at 19, says her school does not believe in punishing, segregating or failing children, something parents bear out.

Niloufer Khan, a mother of two, moved her 11-year-old from a convent school to DPS Sonepat last year, because the old school could not cope with her child, perceived by them as hyperactive. “He was always the odd one out. Always being made to stand in corridors, pulled to the principal’s office," said Khan, who, with her husband, runs a womenswear boutique in Karnal, Haryana.

Khan said her son has calmed down in the new school because of Mann’s influence, and though she finds the fees a strain — her son lives on campus — she is happy about her decision.

Mann is outspoken about issues that affect the school, such as any attempt to raise royalty by the DPS Society. The higher royalty, she says, will come from fees and will affect the stability of the schools.

Her school will soon start a separate, smaller shift for poor children, where they will be taught by a separate set of teachers, something Meenakshi Singh’s DPS Sushant Lok already practises. This is the DPS form of “inclusion", as the brand (and the law) requests most schools implement.

Mann says she dissuades parents in the neighbourhood from applying for seats as studying with rich children can give poor children “a complex".

She has no ambitions to branch out as she says running a school requires a lot of commitment and she is satisfied with one. So far.

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