Lina Ashar, one of the pioneers of the pre-school movement in the country, talks about changing concepts of education and its challenges

Sometime in the early 90s, Lina Ashar came back to India from Australia to get in ‘touch’ with her roots. Armed with a degree in teaching from Australia she joined a school in Mumbai. In an experience that was a revelation to her, she realised that teaching in India, which relied more on learning by rote, lacked imagination and creativity.

Having made that discovery she decided to set up a pre-school in Mumbai which would engage children with teaching that would be imaginative and fun. She took a loan from her father and set up the first Kangaroo Kids pre-school in Mumbai in 1993. At the time the pre-school concept was unheard of in India.

What started off as one pre-school with 25 students has grown into a chain of pre-schools with branches across cities in India, West Asia and the Maldives. It has a full-fledged school, Billabong International High School, with classes up to the 12th grade. Lina, chairperson of Kangaroo Kids Education Limited, who was in Kochi for the launch of the pre-school’s city franchise last week, jokes, “I started with Kangaroo Kids and now apart from the fact that there are so many pre-schools, they even have ‘kids’ attached to their names.”

Of the common perception that Kangaroo Kids’ claim to fame is famous people — it is the school where celebrity children study — she says, “it is not that, over the years we have established our credibility and brand. In the initial days, we at Kangaroo Kids were doing things differently from what was being done. It was more of an abstract way of teaching and people who had travelled and had exposure to that kind of approach were the only ones who could have accepted that. Back then it was the celebrity who had that. Today, as a result of more exposure people are more aware and open to such ideas.”

Setting up the school and going against the flow was difficult, she avers. A lot of work went into the effort to change attitudes to education. Advocacy with parents, talking to school principals about the teaching and testing methods were some of the issues she had to address. “Even testing procedures had to be more tangible than just depending on what the child has learnt by rote. A subject cannot be taught in isolation, without relating it to the world outside the classroom.” Action-based, scientific, experiential learning/teaching systems where the child gets to think and apply the principles she is being taught are the keys to absorbing knowledge.

Initiating the ‘mind shift’ included opting for concepts alien at the time such as research-based curriculum and low teacher-student ratio. Abandoning uncomfortable uniforms for more comfy ones was another. The ‘mind shift’ had a broader context. It extended to inclusion of children with special needs. “There’s a notion that if children with special needs were in the same class as other children they would ‘affect’ the others. They do not. Inclusion is empathy building and empathy releases happiness chemicals in the brain. It is mutually beneficial for both sides.”

She makes a strong case for the holistic development of children as opposed to the exam or IQ oriented approach. “Studies have shown that IQ is only a 10 per cent determiner of success. So the other 90 per cent is ignored while focusing on that 10 per cent.” She says she attempts to inculcate ‘habits of success’ which are not solely dependent on the intellect. Emotional resilience, being confident, being persistent are some the qualities that comprise habits of success.

As the conversation veers to government policies, Lina says these are sometimes implemented without being thought through.

“When you implement a policy you have to be aware of its ramifications – like how are you going to implement it? For example, the Karnataka government’s move to make Kannada the medium of instruction in primary schools and English introduced only in Class 6. That it is the mother tongue is alright, but in a country like India where one does not always end up working in one’s native State…what happens to the child when she grows up? In the global context too English is the language of communication. This is what I mean by considering the ramifications of policies.”

Over the last 20 years the role of the pre-school or school has changed, she says. The school has acquired a parental role. The onus of inculcating certain qualities and values, traditionally the parents’ role, is now on the school. “Lifestyles are different, both parents have to work. This where the school has to step in.”

Kangaroo Kids is probably among the first in the education sector to adopt the franchise model. Most of the franchises were opened by parents with the ‘Kangaroo experience’, Lina says. It is model that has worked out fine because the franchisees took the logistical hassle off her head.

Lina has authored a book on parenting, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding? She is now working on her next book where she speaks to teens and their parents.

“Research has proven that teenage is a difficult time. Through my book I address both sides – the kids and the parents – so that they can make sense of what is going on.”