Heir to the four-decades-old Beaconhouse School System, and so much more, Kasim Kasuri comes from the most eminent family of Kasur in politics – with both his grandfather (Mahmud Ali Kasuri) and father (Khursheed Mahmud Kasuri) having served in the federal cabinet, in the 1970s and 2000s as influential law and foreign ministers respectively.
Post-modern in approach, Kasim is convinced that there is a constant need to redefine the concept of student assessment and teaching techniques to make education more meaningful and practical in line with the changing world phenomena. “The more you move towards the cutting edge in the field of education, the further away it moves.”
Acutely aware of the challenges of operating in the education sector in Pakistan, Kasim is not just proud of the initiatives and accomplishments of Brand Beaconhouse, he sounds keen to continue to conquer new frontiers. Disarmingly candid and forthright, he communicates well – with conviction and passion. At the same time, he couches his opinions about the curriculum, teaching policies and the politics of education with quite visible care – something foisted on him by an ‘intolerant’ society.
As CEO, he is not only proud of the way Beaconhouse has made a mark ahead of the competition, but also of the CSR activities that it engages in, which, he adds, are little known to the general public. He very well realizes the dearth of quality in public sector education, and therefore looks forward to the opportunity when “government schools give us a run for our money”.
He snaps at allegations on the private sector for making education unaffordable for the lower strata of the society, though he concedes that the perception has stuck because his own Beaconhouse and other leading schools have failed in presenting a counter-narrative “because no one private school is willing to come forward and talk about this issue.”
Profit sat with Kasuri in his well-appointed office for an in-depth conversation on the state of education in Pakistan – the challenges, opportunities, and the future outlook for students of today for the world of tomorrow.
Profit: Beaconhouse is perhaps the largest educational institution in the private sector in Pakistan. What difference do you think your schools have made to the society and secondly where have you taken Pakistan’s education overall?
Kasim Kasuri: Well, in 1975 my mother – still involved in Beaconhouse at a strategic level – founded the Les Anges Montessori and then in 1978, the one good thing that Gen. Zia did was allowing the private sector to enter primary and secondary schooling. Nationalising such institutions some years earlier under Bhutto had set us back a few decades. There were only a few private schools in the 1970s such as Aitchison College and a few other missionary schools in Lahore; the situation was similar in Karachi, Rawalpindi etc. Very few people had the contacts or resources to get their children enrolled in these elite missionary or pre-partition schools. And everybody else who was not able to get in had no option but to rely on the public sector schools.
The launch of Beaconhouse and its success paved the way for others to follow suit – like LGS and City. I don’t want to single out Beaconhouse, as others too have made a tremendous contribution to education in Pakistan as well.
Across generations from the Quaid-e-Azam to Nawaz Sharif, to Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, most of our political leaders and standout personalities who made an impact at the national or global level were products of private schools – whether for-profit or non-profit. So were our celebrated scientists, doctors, musicians, actors, the Oscar winners, and those who entered the international job market and also multilateral institutions. It is mainly the graduates of private schools who gain entry into the world’s leading universities, and go on to win laurels for this country. So, the contribution of private schools is immense and cannot possibly be over-emphasised. I believe schools like ours have played a major part in nation-building.
Yet we take the flak because private schools have not been able to present a counter-narrative to the ‘fee issue’. There is no effective spokesperson for private schools, and individual schools do not want to come forward because they shun the spotlight. That’s why I maintain that we have failed in showcasing not only the contribution we have made in this country’s development, but the immense cost and challenges inherent in operating private schools. We have also failed to disabuse the completely incorrect notion of how much money private schools make!
To give you just one example, private schools spend hundreds of millions of rupees on school security (armed guards and supervisors, posts on rooftops, airport-style walk-through gates, raised walls and razor wire, visitor screening rooms, female security officers, etc), yet this expense is neither known by parents, nor charged to them. We are forced to spend this money because the government, which should provide security to all schools, has flatly refused to do so, even though it is the legal, moral, and constitutional duty of the government to provide security to all citizens… not ask those citizens to create their own security. I was pleased to learn recently that the government is creating a special security force for CPEC… I believe they should do the same for the children of this country.
While Beaconhouse should be given the credit for paving the way in 1978 by being the first private educational institution to enter primary and secondary schooling, our contribution in a number of areas is noteworthy.
For instance, professional development of faculty. Before Beaconhouse, there were no formal teacher training opportunities in Pakistan. In 1978, there were few, if any trained teachers, and not much expertise in training them either. My mother recognised the urgent need for it and negotiated with universities in Scotland and England – because they were ahead of the curve in this area globally – way back in 1978 to train our teachers. Their trainers used to come in and train our teachers. Then there were also local teachers because Beaconhouse is very big and it is not possible for all the teachers to be trained by foreign trainers. Even today we have the largest teacher training program in the sector. For us, this has its downside too, as other schools try to poach our teachers.
Today Beaconhouse the largest employer of professional women in Pakistan. This is also another contribution that private schools collectively have made: creating tremendous employment opportunities for professional women in particular and for others in general.
We were also the first to have purpose-built school campuses in Pakistan. In the past, all our schools operated out of residential facilities converted into schools – and even today, many of our schools function in that way. But no matter how good these converted properties are, it is difficult to provide essential-for-school facilities in a residential building. For instance, standardised classrooms, science lab, playing fields, a swimming pool and so on cannot be created in a residential building… although I feel that there are certain advantages that smaller schools offer, especially for children in the early years
We were also the first ones to start using technology in the classrooms, including computers and programming languages, way back in the 1980s. Technology is now ubiquitous, but back in those days to the best of my knowledge Beaconhouse was the first school that started to teach students how to use computers. Presently it’s more about using technology to enhance the curriculum and support the overall learning process, such as using the Internet to allow students to work along with pupils from other countries, using robotics and developing Apps etc. The use of technology is very different these days. But way back in the 1980s we made a major contribution in this area.
We also brought new learning approaches to Pakistan over the years – Les Anges Montessori Academy probably being one of the earliest to adopt the concept in this country. IB (International Baccalaureate) is another in terms of embracing new ideas and pedagogies, as is our adoption of the Reggio Emilia approach.
Profit: Do you think you have taken education to the cutting edge?
KK: Education is an area that is ever evolving. There is a lot more that we are doing that is in the pipeline. I don’t know if it is ever possible to be at the ‘cutting edge’ because the closer you move toward it, the further the ‘edge’ goes. We have been organising events to understand and evolve the requirements of the world of the future. In 2005 we arranged ‘Rethinking Education’, with Dr Roger Shank as the keynote speaker. Shank is a radical thinker who maintained that everything in the education sector is wrong, not just in Pakistan but all over the world and schools ought to change completely. From 2013 onwards, we renamed the event to, ‘Schools of Tomorrow’. I believe that we are the only school in Pakistan who are trying to look at the future of education even if it means that in the process we end up questioning or challenging some of the things that we are doing ourselves.
We have held these events in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and also one in Kuala Lumpur as we have a campus there as well, inviting distinguished delegates from all over the world. In 2016 at Lahore, we had about 200 speakers from different fields – educationists, futurists, environmentalists, entertainers, scientists, fashion designers and celebrities. Titled ‘the World of Tomorrow’, it was meant to envisage how the world of tomorrow is going to be different from the world of today, and what role can schools play in making that happen.
For example, in fashion design, we had this very interesting panel discussion with fashion designers and with technology people. One Dutch speaker dilated upon 3D printing while others talked about how technology has transformed their business. The whole focus was on what lies ahead – what the future holds and how we need to do adapt and change as schools to get there.
Thirty years hence, things might be very different. For example, right now nobody takes climate change seriously because as Pakistanis we are obsessed with our everyday issues, and to an extent you can’t even blame people. Yet, like it or not, climate change is going to completely change everything; the recent hurricanes and extreme weather patterns are a clear indication of this.
So, as schools we need to develop recognition of this. We feel that there is a lot more that we need to do to remain at the cutting edge of the education, and make sure that children who are attending schools of today are prepared for the world of tomorrow. The child who is entering our school right now will be entering the job market in 2037 or later. And we have no idea what the job market of that time would be like. Many people believe that 80% of the jobs that exist today will not exist in the future, and they also hold forth that 80% of the jobs that exist in the future do not exist today.
Artificial intelligence and automation is creating a lot of redundancy in the job market around the world. The jobs previously performed by humans are now being accomplished by technology. Whether you like it or not, it is going to happen here too – I believe, maybe to a much bigger degree.
Here is why. When new technology comes to third world countries, it has the capacity to leapfrog various generations of technologies. For example, when Pakistan upgraded to fibre optics, we jumped over several generations of development, while the first world had gone incrementally from A to X, we went straight from A to X.
Another example, just today I learnt from someone involved with CPEC about a project in which the Chinese in a project in Faisalabad planned to employs 400 people, but owing to automation they scaled down to only 100. That creates major unemployment and it is very important for countries like us to understand how we can leverage technology to our advantage and not against us.
So this means that many of the things that schools are teaching might not be relevant for the future! So, the big question is: what do we need to be doing as schools in order to prepare children for a future that we don’t know much about? Beaconhouse is among the very few [in this country] who are deeply concerned with such issues, organising conferences and think tanks to develop our own understanding so that we can keep bringing about these changes to our system of schooling.
Profit: Considering that considerable fees are involved, is private education only for the well-heeled?
KK: Sixty percent of children in the Punjab, our biggest province, go to private schools charging anywhere from Rs500 to Rs50,000 a month… but the vast majority of private schools in Pakistan charge from Rs500 to Rs2,000 a month. The tragedy is that majority of parents would prefer even a low-cost private school over a public school. Though private schools have failed to offer a counter-narrative [to all the criticism leveled against them], the government needs to be asked why public schools are in such poor condition that people are compelled to send their children to the private institutions. There is no way that private schools can possibly cater to the education requirement of every Pakistani. The only entity that has the power to do this is the public sector. So, it would make me very happy even if some children from our schools have the confidence to migrate to the public sector because it would mean that the future of this country is secure. Parents need to redirect their anger towards the government.
Secondly, the Beaconhouse group offers a range of options to parents. In 2002-3, we started another network known as The Educators. Initially its fee was Rs1500 a month but now, about 15 years later, it is between Rs2000 and Rs2500 rupees a month. The Educators is much bigger than the Beaconhouse School System, while Beaconhouse-Newlands and TNS Beaconhouse are on the other end of the fee spectrum.
Profit: Said to have greater focus on preparing children for the future, IB is also the most expensive. Does it not restrict the future to a certain strata of society?
KK: I feel that IB system is not for everyone, and the only factor here is not money. The IB approach requires children to think in a critical and analytical way. It requires them to think, analyse, evaluate and reason. A lot of kids actually do better in an education system which are more study-oriented. (By the way, Sanjan Nagar is a very low-cost school but it is offering the IB’s Primary Years Programme, so it’s not just about money, although money does play a key role in IB schools all over the world).
That said, offering IB is generally expensive because the school has to train every individual teacher – making it investment intensive. It’s not that we are not training teachers at our other schools. But in the IB system, all teachers have to be trained abroad: Singapore, Sysney, Amsterdam, Bombay, Berlin, etc. (Although they offer online training as an option, it is not nearly as robust as face-to-face workshops.) This is very expensive and someone has to pay for it. Then there are other elements in this system that make it expensive. So I feel that it is reasonable to say that it is a system of education that is not for everyone for two key reasons: pedagogically it is very different, and yes, it is expensive to offer.
The IB Diploma is very rigorous and includes co-curricular activities and community service that many parents in Pakistan might not even consider important. As a simple comparison: Cambridge A Level requires students to take three subjects, while the IB diploma requires six – three at higher level and 3 at standard level. The higher level subjects are similar to university courses in terms of rigor. And along with that, you have to be active in co-curricular activities and community service because, if you don’t, you will fail the IB Diploma even if you have aced the 6 academic subjects!! So, I honestly believe that while IB is a great system of education, it’s not for everyone.
Profit: You are not breaking even with the IB system. Is it true?
KK: This is absolutely correct. I feel that it would take a couple of years before that transpires. We are offering IB’s programme in about 10 schools, and are not breaking even anywhere.
Profit: As an educator, why do you think public schools have failed to be at par?
KK: It’s simple: Politics. Politicians like to do things that are tangible, to gain votes in elections. When you invest in public education, you see the dividends in 10 to 15 years or longer. So politicians only want to invest in roads and bridges, things that get noticed. Even when they invest in education, it is in things that are visible: school buildings or handing out thousands of laptops – which do not improve the quality of education in any way, especially since many are resold soon thereafter at the Hafeez Center.
Profit: What do you think about the disparity in different education systems and the impact of a particular system on the chances of survival of different students in the same industry?
KK: I feel that a lot of the talk about having a uniform education system is based on politics. I feel that there should be uniform attainment targets (learning targets), meaning should be required to ‘learn the same things’, to put it simply. But how you get there, I believe, should be a choice given to parents and children. I know a lot of people from the so-called elite who prefer to put their children through matric and intermediate because they wanted to send them to medical or engineering colleges – because the IBCC discriminates children from O & A Levels in the conversion formula. That’s not because they cannot afford it. So, let it be up to parents to decide the education that their children receive, which is the case globally. I don’t care what the politicians say on this, because they know nothing about education, but where I do agree with them is: every child must be afforded the opportunity. And there should be uniformity in the attainment targets.
Attainment targets are usually very detailed. For example, children should have this level of command in algebra or geometry by this class level…. but how we achieve that should be up to the school’s preferred curricular approach & pedagogy (rote learning, teacher-led learning, student-centered learning, student-led learning, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Matric, Intermediate, Cambridge International Exams, International Baccalaureate, American High School Diploma, etc), parental preferences, preferred learning styles of students and yes – available financial resources.
Attainment targets are usually very detailed. For example, children should have this level of command in algebra or geometry by this class level… but how we achieve that should be up to the school’s curricular approach and pedagogy (rote learning, teacher-led learning, student-centered learning, student-led learning, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Matric, Intermediate, Cambridge International Exams, International Baccalaureate, American High School Diploma, etc), parental preferences, preferred learning styles of students and yes – available financial resources.
Profit: Have you done this in your schools, as in at any particular standard children in different systems have the same level of learning?
KK: There is a balance in our schools. For example, if I tell you about the Educators that in matric, we have a very strict curriculum for the teachers to follow, and they are being followed. There is something which is called the theory of knowledge, which is a very interesting concept. We found that even some children from well-off families with O and A level programmes might not feel very comfortable with IB Diploma program.
Profit: At Beaconhouse do you teach the government-prescribed curriculum?
KK: We are following the government prescribed curriculum specially in the areas where government is very sensitive, such as Islamiat, Pakistan Studies and Urdu. And I also believe in this [curriculum] as we must make sure that children are able to adjust well in our culture. After all, we can’t be producing aliens. But when it comes to other subjects, like mathematics or sciences, we do try to add on wherever we can. So you can say, it’s national curriculum-plus. And we are doing the same at the Educators, and not just IB.
Sometimes when I look at the Educators, I am myself impressed because I don’t think other schools in Beaconhouse have such curriculum. So at the Educators, being inexpensive is not synonymous with being subpar.
It is also up to the individual instructors; if they have better insight or additional information they can impart it to students. There is no denying that in the national curriculum of every country, there is an agenda. So, it’s not just about the textbook and the curriculum, it also depends on the mindset of the teacher. Then we’re not a very tolerant society, and media always does not play a positive role. For instance, one school started teaching comparative religion in addition to Islamiat. The media hype and the government reaction were not very pleasant.
Profit: You are against across-the-board uniformity of the education system. Are you also in favour of Madrassas being part of the choice?
KK: That is an important part of our culture and less than two percent of the whole lot graduate from Madrassas. I’m not saying this just to be politically correct, but if somebody wants child to become Hafiz-e-Quran, he should have the right to go to a Madrassa. I also believe that Madrassas should be required to teach modern subjects like maths and sciences. I don’t have any issue with Madrassas, but they should not limit the child to religious education alone.
Profit: Who would you say your top competitors are?
KK: Beaconhouse-Newlands and TNS only operate in three cities in Pakistan, Beaconhouse School System in 30 cities, and The Educators in 225 cities, towns and villages, and we have a different set of competitors in each city… so it’s hard to say.
Beaconhouse TNS School: ‘Where the accent is on experiential learning’
“A decade ago Beaconhouse introduced TNS, its core philosophy having an accent on experiential learning – meaning learning by doing. We felt that in schools there was too much emphasis on knowledge and not enough on understanding or on application. For instance, at school you learn so many things of which you have absolutely no recollection later. Schools all over the world teach in a way that is not knowledge-oriented. At the TNS, we wanted to impart knowledge in a way that students understood why they were learning what they were learning.
We used a strategy called PBL (Project-based learning). Here what happens is that instead of studying English, Maths, Physics, history, geography separately as separate compartments, the student is working on a project; it could be semester-long or shorter. And often the best projects flow from the student’s interest.
“For example, if a student wanted to do a project about building a colony on Mars, his teacher on this project will bring all areas of the curriculum. English will come naturally because they will have to write a lot on the subject and research a lot. Mathematics, physics (gravity), geography, environment would come, because you will have to understand the terrain on Mars. So here the student is not only doing something that they’d love to, it would be practical model, a research paper or a documentary, combining lots of technical skills, for example filmmaking, how to write a script, interviewing people, asking questions, learning critical thinking skills, and also working as a team, thus incorporating communication and teamwork skills.
“Project-based learning brings together not just curriculum skills but further skills that are so vital in real life success. Still there are certain bits that are taught in a subject-oriented way but project-based and experiential learning are the driving factors for the most part.”
On how student performance is measured:
“All assessment is not through tests but there are some because PBL students have to go to IB Diploma and since there are tests there, we don’t want to put them in a completely unfamiliar environment. Assessments are also divided into summative and formative. Summative are more like regular tests and formative are more on other activities like skills needed to complete a project.
On teacher turnover:
It varies from school to school. I am not sure about TNS specifically because I am not personally looking after it but my guess would be somewhere around 10 percent – which is the industry average. It is a little bit higher for us than most other schools, as in other sectors it’s about 6 to 8 percent. Another reason is that most of our employees are women, whose career is unfortunately secondary to their husband’s. So, the turnover is bound be high.
TNS is not just about IB:
“There is IB Diploma, PBL, Reggio Emilia (an approach to early education that came around the time of WWII in Italy).
“Reggio Emilia is connected to IB because its philosophy is that a child should play a role in his own learning. It recognizes that every child is unique with unique potential and should have freedom over the means of learning. It looks very closely at the environment and says that environment is the third teacher for students – first being parents and second the teachers.
We started with Reggio Emilia, it took us to PBL, and then we moved to IB Diploma.”
On how the success rate of students is measured once they graduate:
“The first two graduating batches of TNS have all been admitted into excellent universities in the US other than the ones who didn’t want to go. The trouble is that parents often compare IB Diploma results with O and A levels results… but these are like apples and oranges! Whenever students ace exams, we feel very happy for them and celebrate their success. But the fact is, straight A’s are not enough to be accepted into a top university. In the last couple of years, we have seen that students with average IB Diploma results are preferred by top universities over many kids with straight A’s in O/A Levels. This is because universities realise that the IB Diploma trains a child in research, presentation skills, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, etc, so they are often better prepared for university education. The IB Diploma also treats community service, sports, and creative arts as mandatory. We are trying to learn from the IB Diploma will incorporate some of its best features into the O and A levels. So the placements are excellent and the results are improving. In July 2016, the school’s first result was ‘average’, but the latest result in July 2017 was much better. One of our students scored the highest in Pakistan and was among the top 3% in the world.
The 2017 IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) results at TNS were also fantastic… with the lowest result being higher than the MYP world average!”
Corporate social responsibility initiatives
Expansive and still expanding
“Again we have not been able to project it, perhaps because the accent is on making a contribution and not employing it as a marketing tool, but corporate social responsibility initiatives of Beaconhouse are extensive.
“One of our biggest CSR projects is Beaconhouse National University. Not many would know that this is a non-profit entity that is not ‘owned’ by Beaconhouse. Our family is a major donor, but there are others too, such as Mr Hussain Dawood, Dr Parvez Hassan, Mr Izzat Majeed, the Punjab Government, etc. We as a family have alone contributed more than US$10 million to the BNU Foundation.
“Moreover, Beaconhouse aims to support an equal number of children from underprivileged/disadvantaged backgrounds as we have in our entire network. So, for instance, we presently have 100,000 students at Beaconhouse and 185,000 at The Educators – a total of 285,000 – which means that we aim to extend support to 285,000 disadvantaged students from across Pakistan in one way or another.
“On top of the nearly 13,000 students being provided scholarships, financial aid and concessions across the Beaconhouse School System, we are also running 50 public schools for the Punjab government in district Gujranwala with 9,000 children at a nominal fee, while investing far more (than what the government is paying us) in both running expenses/teacher salaries and capital infrastructure – as many of these schools lack basic facilities like toilets and classrooms. We are also managing a few early years schools for the ICT government, as well as for SOS Pakistan, and are in talks with the Sindh, KPK, and FATA governments. We have extensively donated furniture, books and computers to government schools across Pakistan and to low-cost private schools.
“Our CSR work is spread all over Pakistan, and we intend to do even more. When the Children’s Hospital (a government hospital in Lahore) approached us to set up a play area at their premises, we were happy to work with them to launch the Beaconhouse Aviary. We have also installed solar-powered water pumps in Tharparkar for the benefit of the people. We are in touch with Dr Nafisa Shah and doing some work with her in public schools in Sindh. A government school in North Waziristan is talking to us for taking over its management, which we shall after assessing the security situation. Over the coming years, Beaconhouse intends to support as many children outside its schools as we have enrolled within our entire network.”