July issue 2009
Interview: Nasreen Mehmood Kasuri
“Had the government been able to provide quality education, there never would have been a need for private schools” — Nasreen Mehmood Kasuri
Thirty-five years ago, breaking into a decidedly conservative set-up where education had always been the preserve of either the local schoolmaster or missionary nuns, the Beaconhouse School System is, today, perhaps the only educational conglomerate this side of the Suez to span the entire spectrum from pre-school to postgraduate level. Starting with the basic Les Anges Montessori Academy in 1975 the entire system — which combines business acumen with social and contemporary needs — has been built up through an intensive evolutionary process that bears testimony to the intellect of its founder, Nasreen Mehmood Kasuri.
“The day I began taking in the Les Anges admissions,” says Kasuri, “I never dreamt it would become so big.” Evolving into an effective empire, the Beaconhouse Group is one of the largest privately owned education systems in the world. It is now a global network, having worked itself into the regional landscape from Malaysia and Bangladesh to Oman, the Philippines, Thailand and the UK, besides its home base, Pakistan. With 165,000 students and 11,000 employees today, there is no denying the fact that an idea born of personal requirement has spearheaded a revolution in terms of education in the country. In this detailed interview with Newsline, Nasreen Mehmood Kasuri speaks of her journey from humble beginnings.
Q: From running a smalltime Montessori to venturing into university education — wherein lies the secret of this remarkable success story?
A: The Beaconhouse system has grown to its present size because whatever was earned was ploughed right back into the system. It is a private limited company, but run very much like a charitable organisation or an NGO, so nothing comes out of it. Also, we have a massive teacher training programme with internationally accredited certificates at the end. This is a trend we started and one which was picked up by a lot of others. Today, it is an accepted fact that quality education has to be backed by trained teachers. I have no qualms in saying that this has been an immense contribution to the field.
Q: What was your vision at take-off point?
A: Frankly, it was a very personal need that made me go into education. My sons needed to go to school and when I looked around I could find nothing satisfactory. I was not trained for the job, but my degree in psychology had given me some idea of what to expect out of a good education. Lahore had no Montessori so I went to Karachi and met the president of the Montessori system, Mrs Minwala, and her assistant, Mrs Rustomji. They had been wanting to start Montessori training in Lahore. They managed to convince two young women — remember, that was a time when few young women would venture out of their homes to work professionally — to move to Lahore as Montessori directors. They initiated me into the system and, together, we bought the equipment to launch Les Anges which was, for the first few years, simply a Montessori.
Q: But the later development into a systemised chain of educational institutions, nationwide and abroad, could not have been entirely by default?
A: In fact, there were quite a few headaches. Schools had been nationalised just then, and in ’75, when I started looking around for premises for the Montessori, nobody was ready to rent out. That was when my grandmother allowed me to use the first floor of her Gulberg house. But a year later, the two- and three-year-olds we had admitted were ready to go to regular school and there was really nowhere to go.
We had enrolled 19 children, out of which two were my own boys. So we just put the lot of them into a class and called it nothing, since legally we could not expand as a school or call it a kindergarten or class one, because the private sector did not have that allowance at the time. So we just let that first batch of children keep on coming, on the condition that they would keep trying for admissions into regular schools.
Q: Spearheading a revolution of sorts must give you an edge, given that the private school phenomenon is a major industry today?
A: Actually, I was well-poised for the edge, as you call it. Les Anges had already taken off when the government decided in ’77 to permit the setting up of schools in the private sector. I also had, at that point in time, space available to start the Beaconhouse facility.
At that time, there were already functional private schools, like the missionary institutions. I went to a convent, as did my mother and a lot of others from my generation. However, I do feel pleased that Beaconhouse set off a chain reaction. Of course, it was a reaction to the prevailing conditions, like the fact that successive governments had failed to make any impact in the field of education, possibly because they lacked the political will.
Then, between the few private schools and state-run institutions, there were the madrassas, which were doing their job just as well, since all madrassas were not terrorist-training grounds. Yet, there has been a tendency to put them all under one category. The ‘70s, when Beaconhouse made its start, was also a time when there was a lot of movement into the urban centres, resulting in an immense gap between supply and demand.
Q: How do you explain Beaconhouse’s massive expansion programme?
A: One, there was this great need for good schooling in so many cities. Most of the places that Beaconhouse is now in, it went there on demand. On second thought, maybe it was so because I did not know how to say ‘no’ where a more pragmatic person would have said, ‘Sorry, there is enough room for expansion in Lahore itself.’ Because there was. However, by that time I knew I could achieve a lot more if I were to devise a system whereby I delegated work, so that individual schools could be run as systems with benchmarks.
Beaconhouse is not my achievement alone; a group of people have contributed to its success. My personal success comes from finding the right people who are able to keep the flag flying.
Q: You are credited with having publicly stated that you are not in the field to provide a charity service — a statement that amounts to equating education with business. What is your take on the fact that in civilised societies education is an essential service?
A: Yes, education is an essential social service, but for the government, not for the private sector. And, yes, it is also very much a business, which is not a cuss word. At the end of the day, you have to pay the people who are working in the business. At BH, we have to make economic sense, as does any other institution, charitable or private. The idea is to make a reasonable profit.
Q: So, in essence, you take advantage of the supply and demand situation?
A: Quality education has to be paid for and if the asking price is too much, then it is for the market to decide. It is not the profit that you should be resenting; you have to decide whether you are getting good value for your money.
The government should be brushing up its act to provide standardised education, so that those who cannot make it to the private schools do not get sidelined. I do not have access to taxes and donations, so I have to pay all the expenses from the fees collected. We have 21 custom-built campuses and a lot of development work is constantly underway, for which we need money.
Q: Your husband was part of the Musharraf government for eight years. Why didn’t you use the opportunity to contribute in some manner towards the betterment of the state education system?
A: I did talk to Musharraf on several occasions and he agreed with what I had to say and told me to talk to the relevant person. But people tend to overestimate the power of a minister, and do not realise that, in the presence of an education minister, my advice would have been viewed as over-stepping.
Q: You can also be blamed for setting up a system that has created social class brackets because of its exclusive curriculum, and is geared towards minting money …
A: The very people who make these allegations are the ones who are sending us their children. Had the government been able to provide quality education, there never would have been a need for private schools. I would also disagree on the part about the curriculum.
Our curriculum is designed [in a manner] whereby students are able to achieve certain benchmarks based on age and skill. We have developed our own curriculum with the idea of overcoming cultural biases and imported textbooks do come with a lot of that. We do a lot of our own publishing, with the result that characters are localised with familiar names. Let us say that our curriculum is now culturally compliant.
You are, however, right that the product of the English-medium school is different from that of the government schools, but why should you fault the person who is creating a good product? If it was a sub-standard product we were producing, then the allegation could hold ground.
Q: Are you confident that you are creating products reflective of Jinnah’s Pakistan?
A: I think we are. Jinnah was himself educated in the western idiom, though he was rooted in the subcontinent. So was Iqbal.
Remember that when we talk of heroes, we are talking of people who were put through the old madrassas … the kind of institutions that were a far cry from what madrassas are today. They produced Nobel Laureates.
Q: So you mean to say that the western idiom is essential to a good education? That it has to be included in the Pakistanis’ scheme of education?
A: No, I am not saying that. We have developed our own texts, which emphasise local festivals, values and culture. People refer to things like celebrating Mother’s Day as a foreign element, but since we are now a global community, why should we not give the children an idea of what the norm is elsewhere? I personally feel special when my children wish me on that day.
Q: There has been a strong reactionary undercurrent in certain circles about the decision to exclude Islamic culture and history from language texts. What is your take on that, as an educationist?
A: I absolutely agree with the decision to limit Islamic text to that subject, instead of inserting it in language texts. That is not because I have a problem with religion. I am a Muslim and Islamiyat is a subject at Beaconhouse but, as an educationist, my task is to make the learning process interesting for children. It is important that the teacher and subject should be able to hold the children’s attention. Holding the children’s attention is a big test for any teacher. So if we are teaching Islamic culture, values and history in an Islamiyat class, it would not do to repeat it in another class. Since civic values, environment, human rights and the lot cannot be individual subjects at the school level, we insert these topics in other subjects like language. At Beaconhouse, we have developed our own text stories with moral values for other subjects, so that children do not lose interest.
Q: You have never considered expanding your expertise and economic benefits to the low-income sector. Instead, you came up with the Beaconhouse National University — another very elitist institution in the higher education sector.
A: I could have gone either way, and I chose to go to the university level, because there was a great dearth of quality higher education in the social sciences in Lahore. Had I gone into the low-income sector, people would have said I have neglected higher education. In any case, the Beaconhouse National University is a non-profit foundation, funded by the Beaconhouse Group. That is how we are paying back society.
In the last five years, the Beaconhouse company has donated 50 crores to BNU. We will continue to do so. We also have The Educators, which is a chain designed for the middle-income group. In only five years, it has gained a larger student enrolment than Beaconhouse schools have in 35 years. The Educators is our way of reaching out to an income group that cannot afford to attend Beaconhouse.
Q: So nothing comes for free?
A: The sustainability of free schooling is a very difficult thing. Especially since the last 15 years or so, when the jihadi outfits are vying for popular sentiment, donations for free schools have fallen. If you run a free school, it means a lot of begging and borrowing, since there is no revenue generated from within.
I have sat on the board of the Punjab Education Foundation and seen how tough it was getting things going, even though the PEF was putting in substantial sums into the project. So you can ask me a lot of whys but then, as I have said earlier, I had a choice to make.