Nov 23, 2011

A chance to look at the Indian childcare market

I have just returned from a really interesting visit to Bangalore, in the south of India, during which time I had the opportunity to visit a number of pre-schools and nurseries. It was fascinating to see some very real similarities as well as some enormous differences and also to reflect on how far we have travelled in the last decade as a sector.

In India the market in pre-school education seems to have exploded in just a few years. There are now several large chains offering franchised pre-schools, with growth from a handful of sites to several hundred, but at the same time there seems to be a level of dissatisfaction amongst franchisees, who are not rushing to sign back up after their minimum 3 year tie-in. This could be because the franchisors see pre-schools purely as a money making venture, so the passion which makes a setting more than just a business is lacking. The fundamental premise of the franchise model is that both sides gain from the relationship, so it will be interesting to see how these groups fare in the long term.

I did not visit any of the large groups, but instead met owners and operators of single site or small group operations and I could not have been made more welcome. Despite the fantastically awful traffic in Bangalore, which made getting around a real challenge, I was greeted like royalty and the owners seemed genuinely interested to see what I thought of their settings and how they compared to what we do in the UK.

What struck me most was the level of child-initiated play, or rather the total lack of it in some settings. Most were what we would consider to be quite old fashioned, with almost totally adult led activities, including some little desks for children as young as 2. The prevalence of worksheets would have made the average OFSTED inspector turn in his or her grave, but these are diligently prepared by staff and completed by children, in order to show parents that children have been learning.

Most resources were stored out of range of children and were selected by staff, there was very little free access or self-selection. I was also not surprised to see the amount of plastic that was in evidence, as this is seen as being modern and ‘Western’, yet the availability of craftsmen and cheap labour could so easily be harnessed to create lots of wonderful natural material resources. However, I guess that might look like a cheap option to parents, who seem to like the colourful plastic offerings. So, the same challenge exists in India as here, when it comes to educating parents about how we can help children’s development.

I suppose one of the major differences is that for us the main cost of delivering care is staff salaries, and any increase in ratios can be very expensive. In India labour is much cheaper, but rents and building costs can be very high in metropolitan areas. There were two very different groups of staff within every nursery we saw, those who were teachers (all graduates, some with masters degrees), and then domestic assistants, who appeared to provide the cuddles and personal care, whilst teachers were much more focused on academic achievement.

I did visit one nursery which was run by a fantastic lady who had lived and worked in Lewisham, London and hers was the only nursery which would have been close to something we would operate here. Interestingly, it has a fantastically multi-cultural group of children, including a lot of US and European children, whose parents work in the IT businesses which are such a feature in Bangalore. There are groups who are beginning to recognize the importance of a more homely environment, especially for the youngest children, but in a culture where education is so highly prized, and good schools are so competitive, it must be a struggle to convince parents that learning through play really is the way forward.

It will be interesting to see how the childcare market in India moves forward; there is huge potential for growth, but no regulation whatsoever and unlikely to be any in the near future. Even schools are only partially regulated and many parents don’t seem terribly bothered whether they are or not. Will demand see growth of quality provision, or just growth in numbers, and will parents become more choosy about what they want – and more importantly, can afford? Time will tell, but I did come home feeling good about the progress we make year on year here in the UK and the very real focus on child-centered provision which recognizes the needs of the individual.

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