A passage to India
India offers a huge potential market for UK independent schools, but it requires a different approach, writes Ted Underwood
Posted by Dave Higgitt | March 02, 2015 | International
India, independent schools, international aschools, Coimbatore, Ted Underwood, international schools

“What’s India like?” they ask me. What’s India like? I pause and think for a while, recalling my last visit in early December: a mish-mash of meetings, traffic jams and one very, very long night drinking single malt with a couple of American university marketing staff. I want to tell them it’s an absolute kick to the head of a country. A nation so overwhelming, so loud, so colourful, so completely and utterly busy that it will drive you mad, if you let it. Instead, I tell my extended family gathered round the Christmas dinner table that it was very nice, thank you.

I’ve recently taken the plunge and opened up an office in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. It’s rather glamorously nicknamed “The Manchester of India” due to its textile industry, but that’s not why I’m there. Coimbatore is, by India’s standards, fairly small beer, with a trifling population of some 3 million inhabitants, a steadily growing wealthy elite and no agents representing UK schools there. India is full of such places and I would like to visit them all.

So what’s been stopping us all jumping on the bandwagon of the latest Asian gold rush? Surely if China has yielded such promising returns for our independent schools over the years, particularly in the first decade of this century, then India should be a walk in the park. A country famous for its love affair with education and cricket, where English is the lingua franca, and in possession of a galloping economy. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit as it happens. When I talk to schools about India there is always enthusiasm tempered with a certain nervousness. There is quite often a tale to tell of agents promising the world and delivering little coupled with an expectation to grease the palms of every state official to which they were introduced. The tale often ends with much time and money being spent in India with little concrete return.

So how do we stop history repeating itself? Well, under the Modi administration there is hope. The India of the last couple of years is a commercially minded animal with money to spend and the red tape and corruption which has previously hampered so much foreign trade is being ruthlessly cut back. But still don’t expect any favours. Whilst no one is keen for the mistakes of the past to be made again, recent history is still fresh in the minds of one of the world’s oldest nations and it was not so long ago that the Britishers were politely asked to leave.

In short, they’ll hear you out but you’d better have something good to offer. Student recruitment is a perfectly feasible option but the domestic competition is fierce. Schools such as The Doon and Hebron are, in effect, English independent schools which marry the values of our independent school system with those of a modern India and charge fees for a domestic market. So why would they go anywhere else? A quick glance down the destinations list of old boys and girls shows a steady stream leaving for not only the top universities in India but also the Ivy Leagues of the USA and red bricks over here. They’re not doing too badly at all. How do we as a nation and network of independent schools consolidate our presence in this vast economy beyond the simple model of recruiting a relative handful of sons and daughters of the wealthy?

As with doing business anywhere, it’s always better to listen to what people want than try to tell them what you think they need. The word I hear more than anything is partnership. Indian schools know that teaching methodology doesn’t stand still. Whilst the Indian curriculum certainly doesn’t lack rigour, it is struggling to breed the kind of critical thinkers which can drive an already booming economy further forward.

The quick fix solution was to introduce UK and USA curriculums into schools offering an all-you-can-eat-buffet approach to study, but for many schools this has stumbled when staffed by teachers unfamiliar with the courses and lacking in confidence in how to deliver subjects which favour opinion and judgement over cold, hard fact.

So they have two options, do they import teachers who will be able to teach the way you want them to, like Hebron, with its roots in the missionary school movement, which is an immediate fix with teachers who can hit the ground running but are going to be eye-wateringly expensive? Or do they grow their own? By that I mean, develop the staff they have into teachers with the critical thinking and rigour familiar to those of us who work in or around independent schools in the UK. It may take a while and be initially expensive but there is a potential longevity which will ultimately bear fruit.

This is the route which Doon is taking and this year it began running an iPGCE course in partnership with the University of London’s Institute of Education. There has been remarkably little fanfare over this in India and that is understandable. The Eton of India does not wish to inform their adoring public that their teaching standards are not already sublime but it does demonstrate a creative approach to a problem.

For the schools who are willing to share their CPD programmes with others, there is considerable potential in India. A combination of face-to-face conferences and webinars could prove to be an interesting alternative to the pan-Asian model of building your own outpost much beloved of Dulwich and Harrow. In doing so, you don’t just build a client base in India you build a brand. And that, I think we’ll all agree, is when things could get really interesting.

Author Ted Underwood has over 13 years' experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools W: E: