The honeymoon with India’s estimated three score and ten much acclaimed nexgen five-star schools, launched with a bang with the promise to deliver state-of-the-art world-class primary-cum-secondary education following the economic liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, is over. Initially heralded as new trailblazers in India’s staid independent schools system, the highly capital-intensive schools levying mind-boggling tuition fees (Rs.1-6 lakh per year) — which enable them to offer sprawling playing fields and sports facilities, wired classrooms, five-star residential accommodation and cuisine, expatriate headmasters, and affiliations with the best national and international examination boards — are beginning to attract flak.

Murmurs of disaffection are increasingly being heard on the cocktail circuit (most five-star schools discourage Parent Teacher Associations) and also on their sylvan campuses in faculty common rooms. Suddenly upwardly mobile middle class parents are demanding that the managements of nexgen five-star schools match promise with performance and deliver real value for the exorbitant (by Indian standards) tuition fees they charge. And increasingly, teachers are demanding pay packages commensurate with the five-star status and environments of these schools which are attracting students from around the world.

While none of the new-style schools admit a fall in enrollment, EducationWorld correspondents across the country are reporting a growing number of cases of parental disillusionment. Though currently most of the anger is being vented in parent teacher meetings, there have also been instances where parents have resorted to extreme action — withdrawing their wards and re-enrolling them in tried and tested traditional independent schools. And the common refrain of parents who initially greeted the new genre of five-star schools with great enthusiasm is of lack of quality teachers, indiscipline and blurred academic focus.

"Due credit should be given to promoters of high-end schools for establishing institutions with internationally compatible standards. The new crop of independent schools are beneficial to society in terms of setting standards and benchmarks. Unfortunately because of lack of qualitative manpower, many of the so-called five-star schools haven’t been able to achieve international compatibility in terms of academic standards and delivery. The lesson their promoters and managers need to learn is that state-of-the-art infrastructure and sports facilities aren’t enough. The distinguishing characteristic of a high-end academic institution is excellent faculty, though contemporary infrastructure facilities help good teachers deliver better teaching.

"Given the dearth of high calibre education professionals globally and a severe shortage of new blood in the teaching profession, high-end schools are experiencing considerable difficulty in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers. They need to focus on continuous teacher training and development to deliver internationally compatible education. Their emphasis has to be on recruiting, training, motivating and retaining young professionals as teachers," says Vivek Ramchandani, former founder principal of The Shri Ram School, Delhi and former chief executive (India) of Global Education Management Services promoted by the Dubai-based edupreneur par excellence Sunny Varkey. Currently Ramchandani is based in Ludhiana where he is building several residential schools for a DPS franchisee.

Ramchandani’s implicit criticism that the new genre of edupreneurs have failed and neglected to maintain a balance between infrastructure and faculty investment is warranted because it’s becoming increasingly clear that most five-star schools have over-capitalised infrastructure investment. Much of their large budgets ranging between Rs.10-75 crore have been deployed into expensive buildings, labs, halls of residence and sprawling sports fields and gymnasia. For instance the G.D. Goenka World School situated in the picturesque foothills of the Aravalli Hills in Gurgaon, boasts a 17 acre, five hole trainer golf course, ergonomically designed furniture, "lux levels" of light in classrooms, earthquake resistant campus with an intelligent building management system, controlled central air conditioning with fresh air intake, fire safety systems, access control, CCTV surveillance, public address system, background music, cable TV, 100 percent power backup, and broadband connectivity. Likewise the CBSE-affiliated Jain International Residential School in Bangalore, constructed at a cost of Rs.72 crore, offers virtually every sports and games facility including cricket, hockey, football fields, six tennis courts, a roller-skating rink, horse riding and compulsory micro-flight flying lessons.

...the common refrain of parents who initially greeted the new genre of five-star schools with great enthusiasm is of lack of quality teachers, indiscipline and blurred academic focus.
The fallout of such lavish investment in brick and mortar is the relatively sky-high tuition and residential fee structures of five-star schools. Consequently the fee chasm between a top-rung traditional residential school (e.g Bishop Cotton Boys School, Bangalore) and an international school (G.D. World Goenka School) is as wide as Rs.3 lakh per year or Rs.25,000 per month.

"Over investment in infrastructure is an extreme reaction to traditional schools with their spartan buildings and grudging sports facilities. But redefining schools which are institutions of learning into five-star hotel-like institutions is an over-reaction. Inevitably it has translated into high tuition fees, which only the super rich can afford. Little wonder that international schools, unlike even the most expensive traditional public schools, don’t attract students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. This is bound to have some negative social implications," says Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, an alumnus of Kent Sate University (USA) who spent several years teaching geography in American universities before returning to India in 2000 and promoting the Dharani Trust, an education research and advocacy organi-sation based in Bangalore. He also signed up as a geography teacher at the Indus International School, Bangalore, but in late 2003 quit following "ideological differences" with the management.

According to Balachandran the major challenge international schools are experiencing is faculty retention. "The demand for quality teachers far exceeds supply. Therefore teacher attrition rates in these schools is very high. It’s not uncommon for students in some schools to experience three different teachers in a subject in one academic term," he says.

Against this backdrop, suddenly there’s a growing awareness within Indian academia that the differentiating characteristic between a good and great school is faculty profile. Therefore recruiting, motivating and retaining best teachers has become a top priority of five-star school managements. And it’s hardly a secret that high-end schools with global acceptability pretensions have signed up recruitment firms and headhunters to poach, purloin and entice the most highly reputed teachers from schools across the country. The dearth of quality faculty in five-star schools is aggravated by the reality that most of them are affiliated to the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Examination which offers the British ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels) or the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organisation (IB), and delivering these globally-reputed syllabuses and curriculums respected for their academic rigour and broad-based life skills content requires best quality teachers.

Says T.P. Vasanth, managing trustee of the Indus Trust which administers the Indus International School, an IBO-affiliated kindergarten-class X school spread over 40 acres in suburban Bangalore with 400 students (of whom 200 are boarders) instructed by 40 faculty, on its muster roll: "It’s true that with the sudden mushrooming of international schools, quality teachers committed and dedicated to the profession are in short supply, especially those with experience of teaching a broad, inquiry-based international curriculum such as the IB. Therefore it took us over 15 months of interviews and group discussions in 2002 to staff our school. Despite this we put our teachers through a compulsory seven week orientation programme immediately after recruitment. This is followed up by continuous in-service training. In Indus International teachers are trained not only to teach well, but also to become role models who inspire trust and confidence in students."

Likewise in Pathways World School, constructed at a cost of Rs.70 crore which sprawls over a 20-acre campus in Gurgaon and is affiliated to IBO, teacher motivation and training is the top institutional priority. "We have carefully designed our faculty development programmes to develop teaching skills to internationally accep-table standards. We have also budgeted a considerable amount for teachers to attend local and international workshops and seminars," says Lalage Prabhu, principal of Pathways World School.

But even though promoters of nexgen five-star schools privately admit that they’ve gone over the top with infrastructure development, the experienced principals placed in charge of these schools deny that superior infrastructure has been bought at the cost of faculty. In their opinion a distinction needs to be made between genuine international schools and pretenders. "There are international schools and international schools. Some are genuinely internationally benchmarked, offering globally acceptable quality education while the majority style themselves as international without just cause. I can’t blame parents for becoming disenchanted with such schools. Impressive buildings and five-star facilities don’t guarantee best education. Excellent infrastructure has to be backed by internationally accepted curriculums like IB and teachers familiar with it," says Ken Jarman, principal of Ecole Mondiale World School, Mumbai who has over three decades of teaching experience in Australia, Cameroon, China, Namibia, among other countries.

Charges of conspicuous consumption and valueless education are ironic given that a significant percentage of students enrolled in the new international residential schools are the progeny of NRIs (non-resident Indians), sent home to India to acquire values and traditions of the country of their origin.
Constructed at a reported cost of Rs.100 crore, EMWS which admitted its first batch of 130 students in July this year is located on a two-acre site in the upscale suburb of Juhu, Mumbai and offers the IB and IGCSE curriculums. Annual tuition fees range from Rs.3.90 for primary school to 5.9 lakh for secondary school.

Likewise Dr. R. Kishore Kumar, senior principal of Chennai’s sole five-star school — St. John’s International Residential School — which has 675 students instructed by 80 teachers and 40 tutors on its muster roll, says that generalisations about reckless expenditure on real estate and stinting on faculty pay packages and development are popular but unwarranted. "Even if promoters are slow to learn, most professional headmasters and principals are well aware of the importance of course and curriculum content which enhance the intelligence and emotional quotient of children, and sports and games facilities. If these parameters are neglected, parents who pay high tuition fees are bound to become disenchanted. That’s why the professionally managed international schools are continuously evolving and upgrading their teaching and adminis-tration," says Kishore Kumar.

Nevertheless a valid criticism of the promoter/ managers of five-star schools is that they tend to discourage parental involvement, particularly active PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations) which are almost a fundamental right in the US. Though the glossy brochures and promotional literature of international schools promise egalitarianism and parental involve-ment in contrast with straight-jacketed military style public schools which if at all, tolerate rather than encourage PTAs, this is a promise practiced more in the breach than observance. Most of them discourage PTAs and permit minimal parental involvement. In particular, the highly remunerated CEO-style principals are rarely accessible to parents.

Says Rita Bhaskar, an insurance advisor who recently pulled her class VIII son out of the upscale Vidya Shilp Academy, a CISCE-affiliated new genre school in Bangalore: "During the five years my son was at Vidya Shilp, I rarely got the chance to meet with teachers, particularly the principal and promoter. The school doesn’t have a PTA, nor are there formal parent-teacher meetings. The only time parents meet teachers is when they go to get their children’s end-of-term report card. This is so unlike the Vasant Valley School in Delhi where my son was enrolled earlier. Parents were free to walk in anytime to meet with teachers. The principal was accessible and suggestions for improvement were taken seriously. We enroll our children in high tariff schools because we believe they will be more transparent than traditional schools, and open to active parental involvement."

The aversion if not hostility of nexgen international schools to parental involvement and formal PTAs in particular is surprising, given that in India’s traditional public schools PTAs are accepted forums for airing parental grievances and demanding accountability from school managements. One expla-nation is that huge investments at risk in five-star schools rule out interference and intervention in administration by amateurs, including well-meaning parents.

But expert educationists warn that professionalism carried to an extreme is a two-edged sword. "PTAs are integral to the schooling process because school authorities and parents share — or should share — a common vision i.e holistic development of students. Education does not end in school, it has to continue at home. Therefore parents and teachers have to collaborate and cooperate. Given today’s emphasis on professional service schools that regard parents as intruders or a cause of stress will eventually lose credibility and the community’s trust. Constructive parental feedback is vital to ensuring smooth institutional development. This principle is applicable to all schools irrespective of their reputation, status or longevity," says Nina Kanjirath, a former teacher and executive of IL&FS-ETS and currently founder director of Gintara Foundation, which runs two avant-garde pre-primary schools in Bangalore.

Another characteristic of nexgen schools which has attracted the ire of educationists is that they are over-influenced by the five-star hotel culture bordering on greedy conspicuous consumption. There’s an emerging consensus that fraternisation in such artificial environments desensitises children to the great majority of poor and disadvantaged.

"By promoting schools with five-star amenities, the new international schools are nurturing an elitist, money and status conscious mindset. In my interaction with students from these schools I’ve noticed that most of them have little respect for teachers or visitors and sport an air of superiority. If five-star schools want to deliver holistic education, as they claim, there’s much they can learn from India’s well-established public schools, which respect tradition and enforce discipline and good manners. While making the important decision of choosing a school for children, parents should note that high tuition fees don’t necessarily translate into good education. They should insist that school managements focus on character building," says Syed Sultan Ahmed, founder director of S.S. Edutainment, a Bangalore-based education company which conducts its hugely successful WHO recommended life- skills training programme in ten schools in Bangalore and Hyderabad.

The danger of managers and teachers of elite schools encouraging conspicuous consumption and unwarranted snobbery is also underscored by Padma Vasawani, principal of the CISCE-affiliated Hiranandani Foundation School, Mumbai, with 1,500 students drawn from diverse socio-economic backgrounds on its muster. "While a certain level of comfort and cleanliness is necessary, the extent of luxury five-star schools provide is unnecessary and will engender needless elitism. Students from these schools may be deprived of the benefit of growing up in egalitarian environments, so important for instilling values in children," says Vaswani.

Charges of conspicuous consumption and valueless education are ironic given that a significant percentage of students enrolled in the new international residential schools are the progeny of NRIs (non-resident Indians), sent home to India to acquire values and traditions of the country of their origin. "Most NRI parents especially send their children to school in India to become acquainted with Indian culture and value systems. But they are disappointed because upscale schools in India are more westernised than schools abroad," says C. Sathiamurthy, principal of Chinamaya Vidyalaya, a CBSE affiliated school in Chennai.

"Parents need to be clear about what they want for their children: success in life or success in examinations. If they want the former, international schools are the best choice."
Insufficient emphasis on values-driven education recently prompted 33 irate parents of the upscale Vidya Shilp Academy, Bangalore (annual tuition fee Rs. 49,500) to write a protest letter to Ravindra Vithani, the chairman (the school has not constituted a PTA) listing their grievances and according top priority to the issue of "indiscipline among students". "There is lack of respect towards faculty/authority which can later translate into social issues. We have noticed this growing trend with great concern," says their joint protest memorandum.

Yet the most common grievance of parents across the country interviewed by EducationWorld correspondents is that preoccupied with state-of-the-art comforts and leisure facilities, international school managements put academic excellence on the back burner. A Bangalore-based mother has already decided to pull her daughter out of a five-star school in the city after she finishes class VII. "There is no stress on excelling in academics. Her grades are falling and with her class X board exam due in two years, I believe she needs a school which will motivate her to top them. The struggle for admission into the few good colleges in the country is intense and if she doesn’t get good grades, her future will be jeopardised," says this worried parent who requested anonymity.

However new genre international schools have their champions. Comments Neeta Rai, whose daughter studies in Pathways World School, Gurgaon: "The blanket charge that international schools aren’t delivering is unfair. They are relatively new and need to be given more time. My experience with my daughter’s school has been very positive. She loves going to school and as a parent I am free to air my views in our quarterly parent-teacher meets. Parental attitudes shaped by decades of appreciation of rote-learning and exam-centred teaching need to change."

Lt. Gen. Arjun Ray, a distinguished four-star former Indian Army general and the CEO of Indus International School, Bangalore also recommends a change in parental mindsets. "Parents who crib about international schools need some education themselves. Contemporary globally benchmarked education goes beyond good examination grades acquired through rote learning. Holistic education is an experiential process encompassing academics, co-curricular activities, sports education and life-skills learning. Parents need to be clear about what they want for their children: success in life or success in examinations. If they want the former, international schools are the best choice. With constructive parent feedback, I believe that international schools can deliver the foundational education needed in the rapidly globalising new world order," says Ray.

Quite clearly the past decade during which a new genre of five-star international schools have flooded India’s high-end secondary education market, has been a learning period as much for the managements as for their students. On the credit side of the ledger they have set new globally accepted school education standards, established best teaching-learning practices and expanded the pool of well-trained teachers.

Indeed they may have begun the process of re-establishing India as a hub of global education attracting students from around the world. On the debit side, issues of encouraging parent-teacher/ management interaction, teacher disaffection, maintaining a balance between infrastructure and faculty development, value-based education, require mid-course correction. Their willingness to self-correct and convert shortcomings into strengths will determine their place in India’s academic history — as trailblazers or experiments which went awry.