There Is Huge Dearth Of Good K-12 Schools In India: Vinesh Menon, AMPERSAND Group

In an exclusive interaction with BW Education, Vinesh Menon, CEO - Education, Consulting & Skilling (Government Services), AMPERSAND Group elaborates about the Indian Education sector amid the COVID-19 crisis.

What made you shift from the BFSI sector to the Education sector? 

This is an interesting question and honestly, the reasons are quite diverse. On one side, I had experienced multiple facets of the BFSI sector, from Banks to Globally acclaimed NBFCs to Home bred Family run National Distributors of Investment Products to Asset Sales to CASA businesses, I reached a point where to my eyes the BFSI products were starting to look commoditized and less solution-driven. In parallel, I happened to research and understand the tremendous potential and headroom that the Indian Education (in particular the K-12 segment) had to offer. I just got this 'blink' moment when I felt I could contribute to this sector with all the experience I had garnered in the BSFI space in areas of solution delivery, technology and managing scale.  

How do you look at the present scenario of K-12 ecosystem in India? 

The scenario could not have been better. The yawning gap between demand and supply continues and there is a huge dearth of good K-12 schools in India especially in the 'affordable' mid mass affluent category. The sector is huge and spread out, fragmented and off late many industry influencers have started to make a small but sure impact in an attempt to bring it together. The sector has started to be recognized by the investor community – We have been witness to some good positive news in this area and reflects the faith that investors have in the potential within the country. It is fascinating to see young technocrats start Ed-Tech firms and reach out and interact with academia to understand what happens in a classroom; to get into the mind of a child and teacher and innovate solutions. Last but not the least, it is encouraging to see the Government bring a certain sense of focus into this sector. The recent creation of the SamagraShiksha guidelines, the multiple draft versions of the National Education Policy, the emphasis on the 2 Tsie. Teacher & Technology are all very progressive signs. We are in for exciting times ahead in the decade to come, 

From where has ‘VIBGYOR’ derived its name? Throw some light on its vision. 

VIBGYOR School is the brainchild of our Founder Chairman, Rustom Kerawalla and was conceived more than 15 years ago. VIBGYOR aims to bring in the much-desired vibrancy in school education like the vibrant colours of the rainbow through a differentiated approach. While VIBGYOR has now become the preferred brand name for school education for more than 100,000 parents across 9 cities, I am keen to use this platform to also highlight on our umbrella group brand aptly called AMPERSAND Group. While the VIBGYOR group of schools are a part of AMPERSAND Group as its flagship brand, The AMPERSAND group vision mirrors our chairman Founder’s vision to transform millions of lives globally through the use of technology in the realm of Education, Skilling and healthcare in the private and government sectors within and outside of India. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the education sector in a major way? What solutions do you think Educational institutions can come up with? 

The Coronavirus pandemic or COVID 19 as it's now known as has thrown multiple challenges to the entire world and across all walks of personal and professional life. Almost all sectors that deal with Human Lives have been affected and the education sector is not insulated from it. While safeguarding the lives of children is of paramount importance, it is important for the educational institutions to look for innovative methods to ensure that the learning continuity of the children is not compromised. Most well established private schools including ours have fast-tracked the digital delivery platforms and have worked out modules to enter into the homes of the children and students through audio-visual aids to help them keep abreast with the curriculum. Social messaging groups have now become platforms for thought exchange and idea-sharing. The hard work of many Ed-Tech organisations which have been attempting to collaborate with schools to bring in an enhanced learning experience in academia is now being put to test. The AMPERSAND group has always been propagating the use of technology and we have been advocating the “ Phy-Gi – tal” model that blends traditional teaching with technology intervention. Our team of content experts and academicians have rise to the occasion and we have been busy ensuring that our students continue to learn uninterrupted during this period through the use of innovative digital solutions. This is a watershed moment and we believe will be the beginning of truly integrated learning and expansive use of e-learning. 

How can the government and its schools across India benefit from the private sector? 

While the private schools seem to have their act ready on the use of technology and innovation for ensuring continuous teaching to students, I am worried about the students that have been attending government schools across the length and breadth of India. Many of these schools have just about started to use smart classes inside classrooms and the concept of digital learning or teaching is new. However given the diversity and spread of government schools across the country, I would urge the central government and state governments to create an Education Task Force as they did with the Economic Task Force to brainstorm and put some policies together to fast track digital delivery of education to the children. This is best done in association with private players who have the requisite experience in running schools and who have been technology savvy to bring about the scale in education delivery through the use of technology. Once we go through the challenging period of Life Survival, what will follow is economic survival. In the process, we should not forget to stay engaged with the 250 million students of India who need to go through their education rigour from pre-primary to senior secondary and beyond. The ecosystem can be damaged if this is not taken into cognisance and can have far-reaching consequences in job/entrepreneurship creation in the future and our dream to create world-ready citizens may not become a reality. The Ed-Tech sector has a lot to offer and using the platform of Public-Private partnership to help students can remain up-to-date in all forms of education and skilling. The PPP model has worked in several infrastructure projects across India and education is the foundation for any infrastructure to sustain in the long run. While the government can provide platforms like faster internet speeds, deeper penetration of telecom services, private players can roll out their services on these platforms to reach the remotest corners of India. This should be integrated immediately and be part of our education curriculum post COVID-19.   

You have been in the education sector for past 8 years, where according to you, are we lagging behind and what would you suggest to come at par with the education system of developed nations of the world?  

I don’t think we should compare our education system with the developed nations of the world and set theirs as a benchmark. We should simply look inward and work on building our ecosystem from strength to strength.

So what do I see as challenges that need addressing? 

I think we need to have a much better positioning of our teaching community – Teaching in Indian schools is still driven by either pure passion or is a default profession picked to blend adjustment to the family with some earnings. Teaching should become a coveted profession like Bankers and Lawyers and doctors 

Our children need newer and more interesting methods of learning. They are sharper, more tech-savvy and far far more exposed to world affairs than we were even after we exited our teens. While new ideologies like Experiential Learning and Smart Classes have started to replace the traditional Rote Learning and Blackboards, many of these initiatives are starting to be witnessed only in schools belonging to metros and tier 1 towns. Accessibility to innovation has to increase to the affordable schooling segment too 

The Government and the well-meaning Private Players have to work in tandem and as a team. This is not yet happening. Challenges will remain as long as the two operate in silos.  

Controversial as it may sound, I think its time to bring profit advocacy to this ecosystem. While I have no doubt that Schooling is a noble service, the needs of today's children are so dynamic and changing that new-age outlook is also required. We need healthy competition amongst schools, we need a sense of ownership and be responsible for giving back value for the hard-earned monies spent by parents and guardians 

Tell us about your experiences while working for the government-backed skilling program to train and employ adult youth in Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir?

The skilling program was designed to train adult youth to hone their skills in Retail, Hospitality and healthcare under the scheme brought out by the Ministry of Rural Development. I had the privilege and honour to have interacted with many of the students during their passing out ceremony post-course completion and the experience was very very humbling. It was a very satisfying moment to know how we have been able to make a small but significant contribution in linking the industry need for hard-working talented youngsters and adult youth who are committed to working hard to make a name and space for themselves in life.

How fruitful do you find the flooding of various Ed-Tech start-ups for the education sector of India?

Technology has become an integral backbone of many industries and the Education sector cannot move forward beyond a point without it. The ever-growing challenge in connecting to the fast-paced minds of the next generation of children warrants a very cohesive and blended use of technology with traditional teaching methods. It is fascinating to see young intelligent technocrats interact with academia and understand the nuances of a classroom and how a student thinks, acts, behaves right from pre-primary till he or she reaches senior secondary. All these are considerable factors to justify the flooding of Ed-Tech companies in a sector that has more than 1.5 million schools and nearly 30 million students. My only wish would be that these Ed-Tech companies need to get their strategy right and work on spreading across the width and breadth of India and create products and solutions for all categories of schools both in private and government domain rather than to restrict to a few schools that cater only to the affluent segment of parents, 

Having gained 25 years of valuable experiences working in diverse industries, what suggestions would you like to give to the budding entrepreneurs?

Times are changing; the way of doing business is changing and hence I doubt if I should be the one to give the suggestions. Today’s young entrepreneurs are a confident bright lot with razor-sharp minds. I would only urge them to:

(a) Cut the clutter in their minds and have clarity on the goal of their organisation;

(b) Be aware that multiple situational challenges will arise and there is always a way out to counter each one of them;

(c) I would recommend that they don’t get too emotionally attached to their business. Passion and aggression to succeed should not be confused with attachment;

(d) Hire people who are not like you. This is important as many young entrepreneurs tend to attract talent who are similar in strengths but I would advise against that and 

(e) Learn to let go at the appropriate time and toughen up mentally and physically to endure that moment. 

What message would you like to convey to the students’ community of India? 

The decade starting 2020 belongs to you. The world will no longer be the same and everything that you have learnt in your textbooks and through your sessions will look different from what you see in the real practical world that you step into. What you have learnt will help you when you apply thought and articulate that thought well in your various interactions. I would conclude by saying to the student community of India that there is a no better time for you to create your own legacies - If not NOW then WHEN and If not YOU then WHO!  

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