The Challenges of chain schools


Controlling a chain of schools against the backdrop of a common mission and a common vision is indeed a big task. In this, Susmita Basu and Vineesh Menon talk about the challenges in developing a strong link of communication and philosophy among the schools.

Every School is unique in terms of its geo-social context. How do you think it is possible to extend the philosophy and strategies of one school to other units?

Susmita Basu: I have been working with City Montessori School, Lucknow, for more than a decade and a half. Our school’s mission is to inspire every child to become ‘both good and smart’ and our vision is ‘every child is potentially the light of the world’ and therefore to create world peace through education and to nurture thoughtful and proactive world citizens and leaders committed to the service of humanity. Our Founder-Manager Dr. Jagdish Gandhi and our Founder-Director Dr. (Mrs.) Bharti Gandhi have led this through example.

All goals and strategies across our twenty campuses are invariably designed against the backdrop of our common mission and common vision. Since, we can link these to the very basic tenets of educational philosophy it is easy to extend this philosophy from one school to another i.e. in effect across the twenty campuses of CMS. Having said that, even though, CMS is a large chain of schools in India having a common mission and vision, we have to extend the school philosophy and implement strategies keeping in mind the constituent group of students, the location within Lucknow and hence local environment and the related school community it creates.

So it is not just that CMS is unique in terms of its geo-social context but each and every campus of CMS I feel is unique in its geo-social context. – we have campuses located in up market Gomti Nagar and others located in areas where you have first generation learners. Our success in implementing the school philosophy and strategies is seen only when we adapt it to each campuses’ unique and special environment.

Vineesh Menon: This is a very valid observation and hence the need to for themtic customisation. What this really translates to is that every school chain will have a DNA and thought plank that will drive the nervous system of the Chain’s philosophy. Should this school chain have schools that range from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, it is very important that there be a strong link of communication between the central philosophy creators and the ground realities of each school. While the thought process can remain unified , the execution will need to factor in the local flavor. Lets take the example of the hospitality sector and the hotel industry. The Taj in Jaipur & the Taj in Kerala will be unique in its depiction of the local culture. Images of Forts, sand, camels will reflect the Taj at Jaipur where as Boats, water , cocount trees and kathakali will depict the Taj at Kerela…yet both the hotels will be driven by the Taj philosophies, mission and vison statements that unify the group.

If the schools belong to different chains, then the best way to extend best practices and strategies is for a Maha School Milan sammelan…on the lines of sarvodya which brings together all CBSE private schools in different cities every month, so also the central body regulator should structure this like an ombudsman or like how RBI brings about all Banks to gether to discuss the changing scenarios and share the best practices.

Is it possible to replicate “Islands of Excellence” to other workstations/schools and if so what are the challenges?

Susmita Basu: Creating Islands of Excellence and more importantly maintaining them is a big challenge to all educators and in CMS it is not any different. Our Founder-Director Respected Dr (Mrs) Bharti Gandhi uses a famous quotation to remind us about not resting on our laurels.

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Any success story in creating ‘Islands of Excellence’, be it in the classroom or relating to a particular school section – Pre-primary, Primary, Junior or Senior or the entire school requires good leadership, dedicated teachers, perseverance and constant motivation.

It also requires working with the students and the school community individually to some extent and to a large extent as a whole.

Again I would say, the biggest challenge in replication is not to pick up the entire model in totality and plant it in the new setting of another campus but rather to build it brick by brick keeping in mind the local environment, talent and local leadership and if something is of utmost importance, it is training, training and more training.

Good teachers (read ‘leaders’) can only be created through continuous training through internal and external means and regular in-house support and guidance.

This is reiterated and supported by the President, City Montessori School, Professor Geeta Gandhi Kingdon who has initiated and guided teacher training and encouraged the use of IT.

We at CMS constantly have various types of training – at the level of each campus, at the level of a cluster of campuses (CMS campuses are divided location wise into four main clusters) and finally at the level of the entire school (all campuses together).

We have a dedicated training centre and numerous training halls at World Unity Convention Centre, Kanpur Road. We have a dedicated IT Training Centre with the state of the art equipment and technology at two venues – CMS Gomti Nagar Campus II and CMS Station Road.

Academic training is carried out under the guidance of the QAID which is constantly in touch with educational experts and resource persons both from India and abroad. We have a separate ERP department and E-learning department that conducts training and over thirty IT assistants support them across our twenty campuses.

In this competitive day and age, the sensitivity of the child keeping in mind the onslaught of social media has to be taken into account. Parental education forms a key point of focus. Also we have to keep abreast with the constant innovations in the field of education, especially the use of IT, research and competition. The motivation levels of the staff have to be nurtured and maintained.

Vineesh Menon : It is possible to replicate islands of excellence…in fact this is the only way one can ensure scale and quality at the same time. Three challenges remain (1) The Mindset and willingness to accept that change is the only constant and learning continues for life (2) Continuous upskilling, re skilling and training of the machinery that drives every workstation / school (3) Clear metrics that define the positioning and progress of every school like how KHDA ranks schools in Dubai. We at Global Discovery Schools are attempting to ensure that we replicate a similar delivery structure without compromising on quality yet adhere to the local flavor – undoubtedly challenging but we seem to be learning all the right ropes with the passing of each day. Our structure hinges on the tripod of the principal, the pedagogy manager & the general manager who together work on ensuring that execution is on the line of the central philosophy – the central units comprining of subject matter experts that drive the philiosophies pan india ensure that there is an effective plattform to continuously communicate and share the best practices that work in the “islands of excellence”and then go on to execute the same with the local teams in other schools. The results so far have been encouraging.

One of the roadblocks to ensuring quality is to have human resources with a shared vision. How do you think it possible to spread the idea of a shared vision in the administration of the chain schools?

Susmita Basu: The vision and mission of the CMS group of twenty schools is strongly engrained in our work ethics. All our events, cultural activities and programmes are centered around our school philosophy of “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam” or ‘Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens’. The programmes that we put up at every event namely:

(i) The World Parliament – which through students’ enactment of a general issue related to poverty, education, terrorism, etc is taken up and discussed where students represent different countries and continents of the world. Staff / students are dressed in traditional costumes representing different countries. The idea is to appeal to all the heads of government of different countries to come forward, unite and constitute a democratically elected and legally constituted new order world which will consist of a world parliament.

(ii) The All Religion Prayer – The All Religion-Prayer is a unique innovation of City Montessori School, Lucknow, India to build tolerance and respect for different religions. Students attired in traditional costumes Muslims, Hindus, Sikh, Christian and Bahái render their respective religion prayers on stage. In CMS, particular care is taken to teach children to respect all religions by educating them that the basic spiritual teachings of all religions are the same.

(iii) The World Unity Prayer – In the World Peace Prayer, prayers are recited for individual nations. Our aim is to see that children develop an understanding with one another in the spirit of universal love and brotherhood of mankind.

(iv) Songs and choreography – based on showing respect and good behavior towards parents and elders, since unity begins at home.

Since the above four programmes are part and parcel of CMS school philosophy, all campuses produce their programmes based on these four themes and these tenets are firmly embedded into the minds of our children, teachers and parents.

We have regular Principals’ Meeting chaired by our Founders, where besides administrative and academic agenda some time is always given to discussing ways and means of validating and supporting our school mission and vision.

Also, at every administrative meeting, we spend at least some time on how we can further enhance these to fulfill the school’s mission and vision. In this way, this shared vision in the administration of our twenty campuses percolates from school heads to the other staff members of the school.

As a group of schools comprising twenty campuses, we feel that we are definitely doing our utmost in promoting our shared vision and mission in this way as the enactors are school teachers / students and audience is the school parents and school community.

Vineesh Menon:  Absolutely correct – Human capital is perhaps the key ingredient to ensuring quality outcomes and in any school structure payroll is the largest contributor to the cost line due to this very reason. The answer lies in the following 5 steps that one may need to take while dealing with this very sensitive area :-

  1. The organisation philosophy and hence the human capital traits that are required to execute this philosophy is very important. Once the philosophy is in place, the central HR unit that governs the process of Talen acquisition & retention needs to first of all replocate this with the HR units at every school level.
  2. Clarity during recruitments is very important. One may never be able to get the perfect takent that meets all the needs – certain neds however cannot be compromised. For example, at Global Discivery Academy, we lay heavy emphasis on the need to be a very high energy extrovert and complete comfort at using the latest digital devices apart from the other skills that are required for an educator. An educator who may be a gold medalist and profiecient in the subject but does not fit these criteria would be regtertfully turned down. This philosophy is followed pan india. Again educators who believe in usage of the stick to discipline chldren may not find favor and hence patience , resilience are key trait requirements.
  3. The Onboarding process has to be structured and will need to pass through a very detailed line of understanding the birth pangs of Global Discovery Academy to where we are right now to the non negotiables that drive the DNA. We believe in autonomuy but only after getting a thorough knowledge of the DNA that drives our chain. Half Baked information of lack of the same will be a huge detriment to ensuring this shared vision and the HR department is taken to task if the new recruits are unable to reflect the DNA post the onboarding process. Some may find this process very corportaised but believe me, it is the secret sauce that keeps the machinery afloat and helps build a similar parent connect through the country be it a parent in baroda or a parent in orissa.

How do you think the problems and barriers experienced in the administration of one school affect the other units especially in HR policies?

Susmita Basu: Dealing with the problems and barriers experienced in the administration of each specific school (i.e. each of the twenty campuses) gives us tremendous confidence and experience in dealing with similar administrative problems in other campuses and there are many lessons learnt. The QAID (Quality Assurance and Innovations Department) looks after the recruitment of teachers and its teacher facilitators constantly who observe the teachers’ performance in the classroom as well as observe the written work, act as a support to the Principals of all campuses. The Principals in turn ask for support in case any of their teachers need guidance or support resources. So this system works to the benefit of all.

When the teacher facilitators of the Innovation Wing observe the teaching learning process at campuses; they have the opportunity to identify both the star teachers and teachers needing attention. Successes are shared across campuses and also form the subject of in- house teacher training and teaching demonstrations held for all teachers of that particular level / grade and subject. Similarly, innovations with respect to school administration are identified, and applauded and shared during Principals’ meetings which are chaired by our Founders. The recently concluded Teachers’ Day was also used (as it is every year) to acknowledge the self-sacrificing teachers of CMS by giving them recognition, honours and big cash rewards for students’ achievements. Training is provided to teachers / groups of teachers to help them to enhance their skills. We immensely benefit through this process of sharing successes. Needless to say problems and barriers experienced at various campuses are also shared so that all campuses get similar guidance regarding these and how to overcome / avoid such problems in the future.\

Vineesh Menon : This again depends on the specifc areas – Lets take an example. We recently changed our transportation policy in one of our schools and replaced all small school vans with large 32 seater busses in the interest of safety and better comfort. This was a best practice that was followed in another school in another state. However this move went down badly with the parents who were used to the smaller vans as the big buses could no longer come to the door step due to the small lanes and bye lanes thus causing perceived additional inconvenience to the parents. This was an example of how a problem in one school cannot be necessarily addressed through similar solutions across schools. Another school however adopted the practice of getting the parents to be more e savvy to help access parent portals and correspond through emails – The initiative included creation of a help desk and actually helping spot creation of an email account and navigating the parent to how to access this – This best practice was also shared and it became a hit in most schoools where we tried them. My one line response would thus be that we cannot simply paint the canvas with one brush…we will have to touch, feel, evaluate the surface of the canvas before choosing the color, the texture or the strokes to be applied of the paint.

What are the measurables to assess the comparative performance profiles in case of Chain schools?

Susmita Basu: There are various measurable indicators which directly or indirectly act as performance indicators of any campus. These include:

a) Students Academic Performance– the results of students in classes X and XII, in their school examinations and the ICSE and ISC Board Examination in our thirteen ICSE and ten ISC campuses are used to some extent as an academic standard indicator.

Also we have a Comparative class VIII examination across twenty campuses which again assesses the performance of the students.

b) Students’ co-curricular performance– We organize inter campus events grade wise for example for Pre-primary – Kids’ Bonanza, Primary – elocution, declamation, one-act plays and spin a yarn competitions and debates and General Knowledge quizzes etc. where we rank all our campuses as per their performance.

c) Inter campus cultural events competition– when the programs viz. World Parliament, All Religion Prayer, World Unity Prayer and Prayer Dance, etc. are performed at annual days and International events, they are judged, ranked and awarded by a panel of judges according to the performance.

d) Cleanliness check– From the Head Office, we have officials who observe cleanliness and maintenance of all campuses with constant input and suggestions given directly by our Founders and a team of nodal officers appointed for the same.

e) Meetings of IT Assistants, Librarians, Caretakers, Receptionists, Counselors, Career Counselors, etc. to regularly report on various performance indicators and be trained by those campus staff whose performance is outstanding and last but not the least, leadership training of section in-charges – Pre-primary, Primary, Junior, and Senior class coordinators and other heads who discuss their outstanding practices, performance and achievements. This not only helps each to learn something new from others butalso gives us an idea of how certain common problems are dealt with by different campuses. It is an excellent way to compare performance across campuses.

‘Unity is strength … when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved’. Mattie Stepanek

Vineesh Menon : We would boil this down to the following –

a) Admissions (b) Student attrition especially in higher classes (c) Parent Satisfaction Survey results which are a common set of questions across (d) Child development metrics in English, Math & confidence building (e) Academic results as the child enters Grade 7 (f) Adherence to the Internal audit that is conducted in every school at least once a quarter.

Susmita Basu
Susmita Basu

Susmita Basu is HOD at Quality Assurance and Innovations Department (QAID), City Montessori School (CMS) in Lucknow. With her team, she engages in inspection of the academic sessions of all 20 campuses of CMS. The principals from all the campuses report to her, as part of management. QAID’s exclusive role includes the recruitment and observation of teachers, teacher development, creation of curriculums, assessment systems, among others. Maintaining quality and constant updates of academic standards are constant challenges of QAID. Prior to her current position, Susmita Basu was head at Innovations Wing, CMS for more than eight years; and she also worked at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and India Today, New Delhi.

Vineesh Menon
Vineesh Menon

Vineesh Menon is Chief Executive Officer of Global Discovery schools. He joined the venture in Year 2014 as the Chief Operating Officer and has played a pivotal role to help execute the operations and processes in the journey to meeting the vision thus far set by the Founder Vice Chairman Pankaj Bindra & the Board of Directors.

Vinesh has had an illustrious 20 + year Career with varied industries and includes Financial Services, FMCG & KPO before deciding to move into the Education sector.

As the CEO, he is tasked with meeting the Board’s objective of enabling scale and maintaining quality of delivery across all schools.