Cover Story

India’s Most Preferred Pre-schools

For the EW Most Preferred Pre-schools Survey 2010, perceptions of 1,232 SECA respondents in six major cities, where there is dawning awareness of the significance of foundational pre-school education, were polled. Dilip Thakore & Summiya Yasmeen report

In the popular perception, pre-school or early childhood education (ECE) is not important. In middle class India it is widely regarded as a period during which children in the age group two-six are grouped in colourful and cheerful classrooms to socialise and learn to play together.

This perception is evidently shared by the ubiquitous Central, state and local governments which have drafted elabo-rate rules, regulations and inspection processes for monitoring all primary, secondary and higher education instit-utions. Indeed one of the major complaints of clued-up academics is that India’s infamous licence-permit-quota-inspector regime, which bedeviled the Indian economy restricting annual GDP growth to 3.5 percent for almost four decades before the historic economic liberalisation and deregulation initiative of July 1991 doubled GDP growth, has migrated to the education sector.

Yet miraculously, pre-school/ECE is completely free of government licensing regulations or ubiquitous inpector raj which is an open general licence for the country’s notorious education inspec-tors to shake down private primary to  Ph D education providers. Thus the great majority of the estimated 150,000 privately promoted pre-schools in urban India (the Central, state and local governments run an estimated 1.05 million anganwadis (crèches) under the Union government sponsored Integr-ated Child Development Scheme), are in effect crèches and play schools establi-shed in gardens, garages and residential habitations including tiny flats.

Freedom from government controls and supervision has latterly prompted the entry of several heavyweight corporates and entrepreneurs into early childhood education, mainly under the franchise model. Among them: Kidzee (700 pre-schools countrywide); Kanga-roo Kids (34); EuroKids (600) and I Play I Learn (75). Moreover, recently special-ised education services companies such as iDiscoveri Services and Neev Schools have ventured into pre-school education by promoting high-quality, globally benchmarked, owned (as opposed to franchised) pre-schools in metro cities, even as several offshore ECE majors have commissioned research studies to investigate the potential of entering the huge and under-served pre-school education sector.

“There’s been a radical change in societal attitudes towards pre-school education in the past seven years or so. Now it is valued as a transitional platform which prepares and enthuses children for primary school and life-long learning,” says Arun Khetan, former chief executive of the Kidzee and Roots to Wings pre-school chains and currently the promoter-CEO of the Mumbai-based New Age Knowledge Solutions (NAKS, estb. 2009) which has already franchised 75 pre-schools under the I Play I Learn brand countrywide.

This assessment of a sea-change in societal attitudes towards pre-school education is endorsed by CLSA-Asia Pacific, a Hong-Kong based brokerage and market research firm. According to the firm, the aggregate revenue of India’s pre-school industry growing at 28.3 percent per year, is expected to exceed $3.43 billion (Rs.15,620 crore) by 2012.

“Neuroscience studies have clearly demonstrated that experiences in early childhood have a significant impact on brain development. A child’s earliest experiences impact her ability to think, speak, learn and establish relationships. The quality of a child’s experiences during this critical period establishes the foundation for future cognitive and social development,” says Dr. Elanna Yalow, vice chairperson of the US-based Knowledge Learning Corporation Inc (KLC) and former president and chief operating officer of KLC which owns and operates over 1,800 pre-schools/ ECE centres under the well-known brands KinderCare and Knowledge Beginnings in 39 states across America. Concurrently Yalow is also the executive vice president of the Singapore-based Knowledge Universe Pte Ltd which has promoted three high-end pre-schools in the island republic under the brand name Odyssey.

According to Dr. Yalow who will be the keynote speaker at India’s first international pre-school conference titled ‘Early Childhood Education: Challenges and Opportunities’ in Mumbai (prom-oted by EducationWorld) scheduled for July 17,  professionally designed and administered pre-school education is vitally important because it “builds on children’s natural curiosity and interests to foster love of learning and cognitive growth”. “Professionally administered pre-school education provides young children with an organised programme that supports them in developing the cognitive, social and emotional skills needed to become successful learners in school environments and beyond,” explains Yalow, an alumna of several blue-chip American universities includ-ing the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stanford University School of Education and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Inevitably in post-independence India, where for unfathomable reasons public education in general has been accorded low priority in the Soviet-style centrally planned economy, awareness of the critical importance of well-designed early childhood education is minimal. In a rare establishment mea culpa, the National Curriculum Framework 2005 admits that education in post-independence India has “become a source of burden and stress on children and their parents (and) is an (sic) evidence of a deep distortion in educational aims and quality”. In particular it acknowledges official neglect of ECE. “Pre-school programmes range from those that subject children to dull and monotonous routine to those where children are exposed to structured formal learning, often in English, made to do tests and homework, and denied their right to play. These are undesirable and harmful practices…” warns NCF 2005.

Against this backdrop of inadequate appreciation of the vital importance of  early childhood education and slap-dash, administration of ersatz pre-school education countrywide, Educa-tionWorld commissioned the Delhi-based market research and opinion polls agency C fore (Centre for forecasting and research) to rate and rank the small minority of India’s most preferred  pre-schools. Given that dawning awareness of the significance of foundational pre-school education is as yet a metropolitan phenomenon limited to educated upper middle class households, the ambit of this first-ever survey of the country’s most admired pre-schools is restricted to six cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad).

“An aggregate respondents sample comprising 1,232 SEC (socio-economic category) A parents with a median income of Rs.30,000 per month and at least one child in pre-school, and 290 principals/teachers were shown a list of over 100 ECE pre-schools in their cities and asked to rate the ones of which they are sufficiently aware. Schools rated by less than 30 respondents were eliminated from the rating/rankings which assessed them on ten parameters. The ratings under each parameter were totaled and used for ranking pre-schools in each city,” says Premchand Palety, an alumnus of the Fore School of Management with over 16 years experience in market research who promoted C fore  in the year 2000, explaining the assessment method-ology of the country’s first-ever survey of India’s most favoured pre-schools.

In the pages following we present league tables of the 20 most preferred pre-schools in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, cities where there is growing awareness of the import of high-quality pre-school education. Hopefully this pioneer pre-schools survey will stimulate the multiplication and upgradation of nascent ECE institutions countrywide. Indeed, the rapid multiplication and improvement of pre-schools across the country is an essential pre-condition of endowing the vast majority of India’s neglected and short-changed children with a sound foundation for life-long learning.