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Dino Varkey, GEMS Education, UAE

Global schools operator and consultancy GEMS Education is a giant in the education world, working across the public, private and philanthropic sectors in 19 countries. Group Executive Director Dino Varkey speaks to The PIE about the value of private education in emerging markets, teacher training, and “building generational value”.

The PIE: You’ve said that there’s a stigma around private education. Would you call yourself an advocate of private education?

"I’m an advocate of whatever works – whatever gets us to solving the education crisis as quickly and effectively as possible"

DV: I’m an advocate of private education but I’m a stronger advocate of whatever works – so whether that’s public and private, government partnerships, public and NGOs working together, whatever gets us to solving the education crisis as quickly and effectively as possible.

The PIE: Tell me about some of the government partnerships GEMS is involved in.

DV: Some great examples of success in what we do – in Abu Dhabi, we work with over 70 government schools in providing teacher training. We actually used to give a much more concentrated level of support, we used to send our educators into different clusters of schools and work alongside teachers and leaders every day. Obviously most government mandates mean we need to build a level of capacity and self-sufficiency, so over the last 10 years we’ve gone from very intensive support to very much simple leadership and teacher development.

In another example, we just won a big bid in Saudi Arabia. This is the Colleges of Excellence, where we’ve been mandated to train 6,000 women who are currently unemployed with very sector specific skills, so it’s everything from retail to entrepreneurship to design and then your ultimate marker of success is those young women being gainfully employed. So that’s an example of another model that works. That’s different models that we’ve done in different parts of the world.

“Emerging markets have never had the same level of resources as developed markets. In the absence of that, the private sector has innovated”

The PIE: You’ve also talked about private education being more mature in emerging markets than elsewhere…

DV: People don’t realise that the maturity of the private education market is actually significantly greater in emerging markets than it is in developed markets. If you look at the UK today, you have a very immature private sector market because it’s typically characterised by one type of private school – quite expensive and vastly unaffordable. So you haven’t got a segmented market; you haven’t got choice. Whereas in emerging markets – and the UAE is a very good example – you have schools that charge as little as £700 a year and schools that charge as much as £30,000 a year. It’s a huge diversity. And there are different curricula – that’s a very mature market.

And the reason it’s developed that way is because emerging markets have never had the same level of resources. So in the absence of that, the private sector has innovated. You’ve probably heard the expression ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. That’s exactly what it is. Whereas in the UK, and in most developed markets, you’ve got a social welfare system and the private sector hasn’t had to innovate.

The PIE: Are there areas where you think demand couldn’t be met without private providers – say in the BRICS?

DV: Where demand is outstripping supply, could it be done without private provision? No. Not at all. I think you’ve got very stark examples of that in different parts of the world where the private sector has been for whatever reason very stable or it hasn’t grown, and what you’re seeing is the demand-supply mismatch getting worse and worse. There are a few markets where I’ve seen that happen.

In the BRICS you would need to add 10,000 schools every year just to keep pace with incremental population growth, and this doesn’t take into account existing classroom shortages in places like India, which is today short of 200,000 schools. Governments on their own cannot move fast enough to meet this demand or fund demand.

“In the BRICS you would need to add 10,000 schools every year just to keep pace with population growth. Governments on their own cannot meet this demand”

The PIE: Do you think low cost private education will continue to grow in emerging markets?

DV: Absolutely. If you just look at the trajectory of growth, governments are much more supportive because it’s a necessity. If they don’t have the same resources they’re willing to accept whatever’s going to work. They don’t have the luxury of waiting, debating it politically. So as a result, the private sector is stepping in, it’s able to fulfil a need to parents and to deliver a level of standards and so there’s no reason why governments wouldn’t continue to support it, so actually what you’re seeing is an increasing trend.

It hasn’t stopped; it’s increased year on year on year. And a big part of that is: what’s the scale of the challenge? How many people do we have to educate? That’s a number that’s increasing and accelerating away from us year on year and low cost schools are a traditional brick and mortar solution.

The PIE: Tell me more about the Varkey GEMS Foundation’s Teacher Training Programme in the developing world – the commitment to training 250,000 teachers in the next decade is a big target!

DV: To tell you the truth it’s a significant target. This first year we started in Uganda and we’ve trained 7,000 teachers. The training programme is essentially our internal professional development programme; we’ve just had to customise it for the context where the baseline skillsets of the teachers are very, very different.

The other part is that, given that target, you have to look at a cascading model. So are you getting your strongest educators within a particular community? And then you have to go in and see how they’re delivering to their schools.

We’re pleased with how the first year has gone, but we’ll need to continue to prove that concept – because eventually we’re hoping it’s something that governments will be able to take up. In Uganda that’s been the interesting component, that they’re already seeing the value of what this is doing within their existing schools, to the point that they’re adapting our practice into their own teacher training institutions.

“Of course we have had strategic investors, but fundamentally, the family’s been doing this for three generations”

The PIE: And that programme’s estimated to affect 10 million children, is that right?

DV: We had a firm independently verify that those 7,000 teachers were able to impact 365,000 kids. If you use that metric and scale it up to 250,000 teachers, if we’re successful, that’s what we’ll be able to impact. But it will take some time, a decade or two. But that’s ok – we’ve been doing this for 55 years, we’ll hopefully be doing it for another 55 years. That’s the nice thing about still being a family-backed enterprise.

Of course we have had strategic investors in the past and continue to have those conversations, but fundamentally, the family’s been doing this for three generations. This is what we do; it’s in our DNA. We will never exit this business, so from our perspective we’re about building generational value. I don’t think there are many organisations around the world that are based on that, which fundamentally is better business anyway. It’s better for business, it’s better for communities, and if it’s a mind-set more people shared I think we’d be in a better place. Given our very humble beginnings, we’re in a very fortunate position today, and given that fortunate position we believe we have a responsibility to give back. In fact the story of the family is maybe a smaller proxy for the power of education.

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