Business Today

No-frills learning

Gyan Shala educates a child at a fraction of the cost of a government school-and strives to ensure that the quality of learning doesn't suffer.

Print Edition: May 30, 2010

It's an unusual classroom by any standards. Twenty kids, aged between six and seven, are packed in a small room, sevenby-seven feet in dimension. The teacher does not have a textbook open, nor does she lecture. The class itself is divided into three sections. Not the usual boys on one side, girls on the other setup; students in this classroom are slotted into three batches based on what they are studying.

One batch is working on their language skills (Gujarati, in this case); another batch is cracking simple multiplication problems and yet another is probing "science" topics like "why it's important to keep your surroundings clean." That's right, same classroom and three different subjects are being taught and learnt.

Key Challenge
To deliver quality, primary and secondary education at affordable prices to a large poor population.

Reduce costs by tapping informal market for teachers and maintain quality with a strong backend that creates standardised content for the lesser-qualified teachers.

Fifteen minutes later, a merry-go-round of sorts happens as the batches switch places and students change subjects. The teacher goes from table to table, spending time with students, individually. The classroom is located in Gupta Nagar, a grubby, crowded slum in Ahmedabad. But curiously, there are hardly any children playing in the streets of this low-income locality at noon.

"Whenever we want to start a school, we go to slums and look for children playing in the streets during school hours. We don't do any other survey or studies," explains Pankaj Jain, Chairman of the Ahmedabad-based Gyan Shala, which runs 360 such single-room schools in Gujarat and Bihar that educate over 15,000 students between class I and VII.

The 59-year-old Jain believes that schools like Gyan Shala will help India deal with the crisis in the primary and secondary education sector. While four out of every 10 Indians are now under the age of 18, 40 per cent of them don't attend school. Of the 361 million school age children, 35 per cent are enrolled in government schools where they receive low-quality education. "Budget private schools" like Gyan Shala-which has been providing low-cost schooling since 2002-might just be the answer.

Jain argues that for any school education model to be successful in India, it has to have four prerequisites: Low cost, high quality, scalability, and focus on barriers to education for poor. Drawing from his experience as an academic (at institutions like Institute of Rural Management) and his work with grassroots organisations like Amul and Grameen Bank, Jain has addressed these issues in the Gyan Shala model.

To keep costs down, Gyan Shala aims for a no-frills setup-classrooms are rented, single rooms like the one in Gupta Nagar and there are no playgrounds or other amenities. As for the teachers, they are hired from the informal sector. "There is a huge gap between the salaries of teachers in the formal sector and the informal sector. If you look at the latest Pay Commission recommendations, it's almost five-to-six times," explains Jain.

With these innovations, Gyan Shala's cost of educating a child is Rs 2,000-2,200 while the same cost is about Rs 18,000 (both per year) in a government school in a metro.

The organisation's cost consciousness can be gauged by the fact that Gyan Shala employs just 50 people full-time, of which barely a handful have a salary exceeding Rs 10,000 per month. But does that mean that the quality of teaching suffers? Not in the Gyan Shala model, contends Jain. "When I was working on the model, whoever I spoke to equated good teaching with good education. On the contrary, good education is about good learning," he says.

So, Gyan Shala chose to focus on a model that emphasises learning-based education instead of teacher-centric learning. Gyan Shala has a strong backend design and management team to support its relatively low-skilled teachers. The pedagogy, which is the core process of any educational institute, has undergone extensive reengineering to provide education delivery that is built on highlystandardised elements.

The design and management team creates a curriculum supported by worksheets for students and a daily-use manual for teachers. This manual provides stepby-step details of what is to be covered each day. In addition, learning is reinforced by making students fill predesigned worksheets on each topic.

Gyan Shala also employs techniques like shorter subject periods (15 minutes each) to maximise the student learning experience. Moreover, a feedback mechanism has been built in to not just redesign the curriculum but also change the way teachers teach a concept. There are four revisions annually, which are enabled by the design and management team. One problem plaguing government-run schools in India is low attendance, of both faculty and students.

In the past, governments have tried to fix the problem by providing mid-day meals for students, but low turnout continues to be an issue. Gyan Shala ensures higher teacher attendance by hiring them from local communities and making them work shorter shifts. Gyan Shala classes are just three hours in duration. Driven by fewer working hours and proximity of classrooms, the teacher turnover rates of 22 per cent are much below those of government schools at 35 per cent.

Schools are located within half a kilometre of the homes of students to ensure that attendance is regular. Gyan Shala also charges a monthly fee of Rs 30, which helps in securing the commitment of students and parents. Currently, Gyan Shala relies on funding from government education programmes (like Sarva Siksha Abhiyan) and charitable foundations like Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The result of Gyan Shala's innovations has been quite positive, says Jain. Gyan Shala students tend to fare very well when they move to government schools, at least in the first year. "What happens after the first year in the government school is beyond my control," says Jain, who sees Gyan Shala expanding operations to five states (including Orissa, Jharkhand, MP, UP) and covering one lakh students in another five years.


1. Business model: Organisation and infrastructure designed to deliver no-frills, high throughput education.

2. Enabling process: Real estate strategy enabling high teacher and student attendance and performance.

3. Core process: Paraskilling (modifying a task to help the lesser-skilled do it) and redesigning pedagogy.

4. Product performance: Blend of curriculum and interaction between student and teacher.

Organisations that achieve breakthrough innovation usually cover at least 3-4 types of innovation included in the framework. Gyan Shala fulfils four.

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