Gyan Shala: Schools in slums that have provided quality education to 3 lakh children

The Ahmedabad-based NGO has also assisted around 8,500 government schools to improve learning outcomes. It is one of the largest non-government school education programmes for underprivileged children in India

Aruna Raghuram
27 Jan 2023
Gyan Shala schools have provided quality education to over 3 lakh children from poor families

Gyan Shala schools have provided quality education to over 3 lakh children in the last 20 years

Creating a good cadre of teachers to teach in schools in India has been the effort of every government and large amounts of resources have been spent on it over the years. 


However, Dr Pankaj Jain believes that good teachers are hard to find. “The general belief is that good education comes from good teachers. I had a contrary view. I believed that in a country like India, it is difficult to get good-quality teachers. This is despite good teacher education programmes and high salaries. It’s a complex problem,” he says.  

Dr Jain is the founder of Gyan Shala, an Ahmedabad-based NGO that provides education to out-of-school children living in slums, and brings them on par with those of mainstream schools. 

His school education programme has provided good quality education to over 3 lakh poor children. Two incidents shaped Dr Pankaj Jain’s vision to create a school education programme. One was a visit to Bangladesh in 1994 where he saw good work being done in the education sector despite poverty.

A student engrossed in a worksheet at a Gyan Shala school. Pic: Gyan Shala

“As an engineer with a doctorate in management, I had no background or particular interest in the school education sector till I visited Bangladesh as a consultant in 1994. I was very impressed by the work done by a few NGOs there in the education sector. At that time, Bangladesh seemed to be ahead of India in terms of girl child education despite its relative poverty and socio-institutional inadequacies. That intrigued me as a research question,” relates Dr Jain.

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The second trigger to get him thinking about education in India came in 1995. He was invited to become a member of a review committee to assess APPEP (Andhra Pradesh Primary Educational Project). It was designed by UK experts, did not lack funds, and was a well-implemented programme. Yet, improvement in learning outcomes was poor.

A new approach

Gyan Shala was founded in 2000. It is one of the largest non-government school education programmes for poor children in India. 

Gyan Shala is driven by a clear vision: To address the schooling quality gaps in India and help the country improve its ranking in social development indicators. 

“India is near the bottom of the table in terms of learning outcomes at the school level,” rues Dr Jain.

Group activity at a Gyan Shala school. Pic: Gyan Shala

Its approach is novel. The Gyan Shala programme focuses relatively more on a child’s capacity to learn than on a teacher’s capacity to teach. The NGO seeks to provide an integrated solution – a learning setting, average teachers, and a high-quality curriculum. Reputed external agencies have assessed the learning outcomes of the programme in terms of student learning levels and performance.

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Significant impact 

Gyan Shala made a modest beginning by starting primary school classes in 10 slum locations in Ahmedabad in June 2000. 

At present, 25,000 children attend over 1,200 Gyan Shala schools in the four states where it functions – Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.

Over two decades, around 3 lakh children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have been provided high-quality free education by the NGO. Many of them have been mainstreamed in recognized schools after completing the Gyan Shala programme, which covers classes 1-8. The Right to Education Act (RTE) allows direct admission to any child in the age-appropriate class if he or she has the required competency.

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What is remarkable is the good performance of Gyan Shala's students. J-PAL, the poverty action lab set up in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, showed that Gyan Shala children were as good as children in government schools. Educational Initiatives (EI), which conducts the sophisticated ASSET test, found the children performing on par with India’s best CBSE and elite schools.

Teacher with students. Pic: Gyan Shala

Gyan Shala opens doors for children and gives parents hope for a brighter tomorrow. Both Parveenbanu Pathan’s children, Aasif and Faiza, go to Gyan Shala schools near their home. Her husband drives an autorickshaw. “My children are very eager to attend school. Aasif studies in class 3 and Faiza is in class 1. The quality of education is good. I wish classes were till class 10 so we would not have to change school after class 8.”

In addition to its own classes, Gyan Shala has a wider impact. It has assisted 7,300 government schools in Bihar, and 38 in Gujarat, and is currently working in 1,000 schools in Uttar Pradesh to improve the quality of education.

The NGO shares its curriculum and the replicable part of its teacher training programme with government schools. 

“Our intervention has resulted in 40 percent improvement in learning outcomes in these government schools,” says Dr Jain.

Innovative model

The Gyan Shala model is based on the premise that with high-quality curriculum design and mediocre teachers, who are mentored effectively, good-quality education can be delivered on a large scale at a low cost. The approach is child-centric. It takes into account the fact that the children it educates are first-generation learners, most have had no schooling or a weak foundation of learning, and many are school drop-outs.

“We decided to work with underprivileged children whose parents cannot help them in the learning process. We decided to hire mediocre teachers at low salaries,” Dr Jain says.

Our teachers are neither highly educated nor highly motivated. Most are educated up to high school or secondary school levels. So, their tasks need to be aligned with their average skills and motivation. Third, we decided on a low-cost, large-scale model,” explains Dr Jain.

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A child explaining a concept to to others in the class. Pic: Gyan Shala

“At present, around Rs 25,000-50,000 is spent per student per year (excluding capital cost) towards elementary education (class 1 to 3) in government schools. We spend Rs 4,000 (including capital cost) at the elementary level and Rs 6,000 per student per year for middle school. We are able to keep costs in check because of the lower teacher salaries we pay, coupled with efficient use of resources,” he says.

The major strengths of Gyan Shala, he asserts, are its exceptional curriculum and a strong local mentoring structure which trains teachers, enabling them to learn on the job, and holds them accountable. Although classes are held in slum settings, the NGO follows best classroom practices such as whole-class teaching, small group activities for peer learning, and self-learning through daily workbooks. 

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Gyan Shala is funded by donations and grants. Donors have included Tata Trust, Bajaj Industries, ICICI Bank, SBI, Nalanda Foundation, state governments, Dell and Packard Foundations, governments of the UK and Qatar, and high net-worth individuals.     

Mentoring is the maxim  

Classes are held in slum areas in shifts for three-and-a-half hours a day. There are 20-30 students in a class, over 50 percent of whom are girls. The medium of instruction is the local language. The subjects taught in classes 1 to 4 are mathematics, science, the local language, Hindi and English. Social science is taught in classes 5-8. The classrooms are rented and sometimes are the homes of slum residents. 

A Gyan Shala classroom. Pic: Gyan Shala

Teachers are selected mostly from the same area as they should be comfortable working in that environment. Also, the children should feel at ease with them. The teachers have to have a cognitive ability that is two grades above the class they are assigned to teach. For instance, a teacher who has completed class 8 can teach students of class 6. 

“Around 40 percent of our expenditure is related to teacher salaries and training. Currently, we have 800 teachers on our rolls.” 

Gyan Shala has a rigorous mentoring and accountability structure. A senior teacher is the first-level supervisor who meets the teachers once a week. A senior supervisor meets the teacher once a month. A teacher trainer cum curriculum designer also meets the teachers once a month. Mentors, who are mostly in the field, analyse a teacher’s performance and give feedback and suggestions on how to improve.

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Sangita Shrimali has been a Gyan Shala teacher for over 20 years. “I teach classes 1 and 3. I have studied till class 12. I enjoy teaching. It gives me satisfaction to see children learning. Earlier, I was at home doing household chores. It feels good to step out of the house and go to work. I get paid Rs 6,700 per month.”

Road ahead

Monitor Consultancy has called Gyan Shala one of India’s leading innovators to serve those at the bottom of the pyramid. The programme has also been lauded by a McKinsey-ACASUS study for being an exemplary one towards meeting UN development goals.

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Learning materials. Pic: Gyan Shala

Today, the biggest challenges facing Gyan Shala are obtaining funds and getting recognition under the RTE Act so that mainstreaming its children will be an easier process. As such, the NGO has been participating in the design and implementation of the National Education Policy (NEP) and National Curriculum Framework (NCF). The road ahead is tying up with low-cost private schools as well. It is currently working with 20 such schools and plans to increase the number to 50 next year.

Meanwhile, it continues to be a ray of sunshine for underprivileged children. Tulsi, 21, the daughter of a vegetable vendor studied up to class 7 at a Gyan Shala centre. Being bright, she scored 89 percent in the class 12 board exam and is studying to be a computer engineer. “Gyan Shala’s continuous support has helped me immensely in believing in myself and moving forward in life,” she says with a smile.

(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes.)

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