Interview

Vinesh Menon | CEO | Ampersand Group explains how they are leveraging technology in both education and healthcare to reach out to the masses

Vinesh Menon | CEO | Ampersand Group explains how they are leveraging technology in both education and healthcare to reach out to the masses

What are the initiatives taken by Ampersand Group so far?

Ampersand is a fairly recent change to our bigger plan that we originally had. We started off with the Vibgyor chain of schools. We almost have had about 40 schools across seven to eight cities in the country. We have had in a way perfected the art of school management or running schools right from the end to end services of schooling which included academics, transportation, school supplies, etc. What we decided to do now was to take all the expertise in running schools to the government sector and add healthcare and scale to that space. So Ampersand is a brand that has been created to transform lives across the country and parts of the world, especially in the developing nations. And when we say transformed lives, we are talking about transforming lives right from when the child starts his education to all the way up to the employment stage. From preschool to main schooling, to skilling employment and we also add in healthcare to this overall process so that we are able to touch all aspects of human life. Thatis really what Ampersand group does.

Wehave done good work with some of the state governments. For example, in Mumbai we work closely with the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and we have a close association with the Balewadis. We run the Balewadis, almost 700 odd. We also run a few Anganwadis for the WCD department in Nasik. We have done a range of teacher training programs for many government schools both at the central and the state level. And we also run a few government schools in Punjab. So in a way, Ampersand has now started to work on all aspects of the schooling, all the way up to skilling.

On the skilling side we have also done a lot of skilling programs in schools. Across 1500 schools, we have skilled almost 75000 students from their 9th standard onwards. And we also do adult skilling, especially in areas like hospitality, healthcare, retail, etc under the DDUGKY programs. This is happening in Jammu & Kashmir and Bihar.

What is the current scenario of K-12 ecosystem in India?  What are the key challenges?

I think the K12 ecosystem is going through a very interesting phase. Wehave got almost 1.5 million schools in the country and there is still a lot of demand for good schools, especially in the tier 2and tier 3cities. I think on the good side, there are some exciting things happening. One there is a massive change in the whole education policy making. I think the Government is about to bring out a new National Education Policy after almost 30 years, and everybody is waiting for that to get published with a lot of excitement.

Secondly, the Government has actually made a new program called Samagra Shiksha where they have integrated pre primary schooling into main schooling. The number threeis that- Edutech is now starting to become a very important aspect of schooling. There are a lot of ed tech companies starting to work with the Academy and trying to bring that change in the way lesson plans are taught, especially for the new generation children who are so much more exposed to the technology world and to what is happening around the globe.

 I think the education systems have going through a very interesting phase. At the same time, there are a few areas where we must try to bring in a change. One is that, some of the teaching professionals need to be given a slightly better status. Many of the teachers today are probably choosing this profession by default and not by choice. We need to make it a profession by choice. The second is the government and the private sectors should start working together instead of working in silos. Thirdly a lot more work needs to be done on expanding the whole Edutech sector and the whole technology aspect of teaching. It should go beyond urban and the high end private schools into tier 2, tier 3, and the hinterland areas. And number four and slightly controversial is that, I personally believe it is time to bring in profit advocacy into schooling. I think it is very important for us to ensure that this becomes like any industry where the best of the best bring in the best of the best of education and offer the kind of value that is to be given for the kind of price it takes from the market.

What have been the drilling programs you have done to train youths in J&K and Bihar?

In all these places we have associated ourselves with the Ministry of Rural Development and they have brought out programs called DDUGKY which stands for Deen Dayal Upadhyaya-Grameen Kaushalya Yojana. This is a program which is brought out to take care of adult youth who have probably not yet been placed in industries. So they need to be trained and then they need to be placed. We have taken the responsibility of the mandate of training and placing them.

There are close to 3000+ candidates that we are training in Jammu& Kashmir and Bihar in the fields of healthcare, hospitality and retail. Our endeavor would be to try and ensure that all of them get placed in industries so that they can become economically independent. We already have passed out a couple of batches, and I had the privilege of talking to some of them and going for their certification program. They are a bunch of extremely sharp, exciting, young people who are waiting to go there and do something for themselves. I am very happy that Ampersand is associated with helping them go through their goals.

COVID19 has changed the education model?  What are your opinion and what has Ampersand done in this regard?

 Covid19 has probably changed everybody’s lives in some way or the other. And I think almost all sectors have been effected. This is one particular incident that has even changed the Education sector, especially because school children are unable to now go to school and sit and study inside the school buildings. This has had an effect on students, teachers, parents, and even the school management and the trustees. There are things that one needs to do to try and cope up with this problem.

Ampersand Group has always believed in technology and the power of technology to try and scale up the delivery of education and lesson plans. Therefore, this is the right opportunity for us to really walk the talk. And we have started doing that. Most of our private schools under the Vibgyor chain have been given the facility of teaching online. We are also going beyond private school and  starting to talk to state governments to try and see how we can use the technology to try and even get the government school students to try to start picking up and continue the studies without disruption through online methods. All our investments into technology has started to pay off in terms of delivery now. We believe that this could be a watershed moment for us to change the way education is delivered, especially as we reach out to the mass, a whole set of students across the country.

What do you have to say about the PPP model of managing municipal Balewadis?

I think we must realize that if tomorrow we need to really bring in efficiency to educate our children andI think we need to understand that then this cannot work without a proper association or a participation or a collaboration between the government and the private player. Especially as there are close to more than 300 million students around The government has got the infrastructure, they have got the ability to scale or their presence in the length and breadth of the country and they have got all the necessary policy level requirements to actually make this happen. The private players on the other hand, have got the tools. They have got the ability to bring in those students that can help scale. These private players could bring in that whole execution promise, which probably the Government may find a bit challenging given the complex structure that we have. So if the two come together under the Public Private Partnership model, I think it will help the outcome of these children.

The case in point is what we have been with BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) in Maharashtra. The challenge that BMC was facing was the depleting set of students in their schools. Thenumber of students in classrooms started to go down and we realized that the best way to get that up againis to try and increase the number of students who get into the preschools. If the preschool period goes well, then they can get into the main schooling by default. This has been successful sincewhen we took over the management of Balewadis, not more than 8 to 10 children were in the class. And today we are easily seeing almost about 20-25 children per class. So, there is a certain change that we have brought in the way we teach. There is a certain amount of empowerment that is given to the teachers and assistant teachers who teach in these Balewadis. Also  a combination of technology and scripted curriculum methods has actually changed the way the children absorb that early stage learning. And if this continues the PPP model is going to be a very effective way of changing the way efficiencies are brought into early child education and education in the later years.

What is the technology agenda for Ampersand 2020-2021?

In 20-21, we want to try and reach out to as many lives as possible, right from pre primary all the way to adult schooling and employment. The only way to do that is to really harness technology in a big way. We have invested into a lot of platforms. Our chairman Rustom Kerawalla is passionate and extremely committed and is leading from the front to try and use technology as an important platform to bring in what we call as a Phygital way of learning. And that is the way to go forward. So in terms of agenda, you will see Ampersand deploy technology to try and really change the way education and schooling and classroom lessons are delivered. We would like a child in the remotest part of the country to be able to access this through a simple hand device. Today hand devices and smart phones are really on the rise and definitely digital footprint is going to be across the country. To use that in getting access to the education is the primary intent.

We also intend to try and use technology to improve the way a vocational education skilling is offered to the masses, especially adult youth. I am also talking about scaling in the higher areas, like industry 4.0, robotics, machine learning, etc, Healthcare is another big area of focus for us because we see a yawning gap, especially in basic healthcare services, in the interior parts of the country. A smart health solution brings some technology as a interface between the person who needs healthcare and the doctor who’s sitting on the other side. I think that is going to change the way health care is going to be delivered, especially to the interior parts of the country. So you will notice that 20-21 is going to be a very important year for us and with the pandemic that is going on. I think a lot of us has been able to sit down, take a pause, reset the whole processes and trying to strategize for this year and technology forms a very integral partof it.

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