Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), India’s flagship basic education program for children six to 11 years old, has brought over 60 million additional children into school in the last decade—expansion at a scale and pace unprecedented in any other country. While the physical challenges of access seem to have been largely overcome, data indicates the twin challenges of high dropout rates and low levels of learning have yet to be addressed. Concurrent with the expansion of government schooling has been a dramatic expansion of low fee private schools and an associated migration of students from the state to non-state sector. Gyan Shala, one of these non-state programs, has proven especially effective.

A recent study funded by UKaid from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has focused attention on India’s innovative non-state education program, Gyan Shala, which opened its first school in 2001. Gyan Shala offers low-cost basic education to children from very poor backgrounds in urban slums in the states of Bihar, Gujarat, and West Bengal.

Gyan Shala’s one-room schools have provided education to children in the urban slums of Ahmedabad city (Gujarat) since 2002, Patna city (Bihar) since 2008, and Kolkata (West Bengal) since 2011. It has garnered special attention because its quality educational offerings have been verified by a variety of external assessments, including from MIT/Pratham, Education Initiatives, and CfBT Education.

Gyan Shala program enrollment in Gujarat, Bihar, and West Bengal 2001-2012


Doing the numbers

The annual cost for the Gyan Shala program is approximately $50 per student at the elementary level and $95 for the middle level. Both of these costs are lower than the unit cost in government schools for comparable grade levels. The revenue is collected from three sources: government funding under SSA, contributions from donors, and user fees of approximately $3 per month.

An assessment of the catchment background of the users of the program in Bihar ascertained that 60 percent of the families are based in a nuclear family setting, with 47 percent having six or more members in the family. Seventy-two percent of the males are daily wage laborers with earnings of $3 per day, and 56 percent of the males and 31 percent of the females were literate. However, only 3 percent and 2 percent of the males and females respectively had progressed beyond secondary education. Interestingly—given the urban slum location—96 percent of the population were permanent settlers in the area and 57 percent owned their home.

Four features

There are four key features to the Gyan Shala model of education design and delivery:

Distributed classes model. A distribution system akin to “ripples in a pond.” The design team and the field supervisors ensure that there is standardization of the curriculum across all the centers and minimal, uniform standards of performance in a geographically distributed class set that is located close to the homes of the students and their teachers.

Re-engineered teacher role. Education delivery that is built on elements that are highly standardized, broken down into units, and divided into per day lesson plans. This may be delivered within the classroom by less qualified personnel who are in turn supported in an integrated manner by a design and management team that creates curriculum, takes feedback from teachers on this curriculum design on a weekly basis, and teaches classes to train the teachers through demonstration.

This program is effective in reaching over 25,000 children from poor and vulnerable urban and rural families, and is replicable on a mass scale.

Continuous curriculum design adaptation. A design pedagogy in which the design team constantly creates and/or modifies a curriculum that responds to the local context in conformity with state and national curriculum norms, while incorporating elements of curriculum design from the best-in-class global curricula.

Learning development culture. A culture that is structured to support the strategy of using relatively less educated staff (ensuring affordability and low cost) who deliver quality education outcomes through an ongoing support system composed of high-caliber, highly qualified staff elsewhere.

Promising findings

Some common trends emerged from the Gyan Shala program that are particularly noteworthy. Gyan Shala is flexible in incorporating alternatives into its structure; it is demand-driven in the sense that a Shala will be set up only if the community wishes to set up a center. Further, the community is encouraged to suggest suitable candidates from within who could teach in these centers. These “para-teachers” graduate from a customized training program that involves basic content and pedagogy modules, and they are rigorously supported by a senior team providing on-site, continuous follow-up training. Finally, and perhaps most critically, since these para-teachers are selected from within the community and regularly monitored and supported by the central team, they have much more direct accountability to their clients and beneficiaries as well as to their employers.

The overarching results demonstrate that this program has reached over 25,000 children from poor and vulnerable urban and rural families, is replicable on a mass scale, and operates within unit costs that are below or within the existing government budgetary norms.