The Indian schools where puppets are the masters

14th November 2014 at 00:00
Profit-making Sesame Street preschools cater for middle class

Elmo and Big Bird may be recognisable to Sesame Street fans across the globe, but India's version of the show features some less-familiar characters.

"We have a nine-foot lion called Boombah who is pink and purple and a member of the royal family," says Sashwati Banerjee, managing director of Sesame Workshop India, the organisation behind the subcontinent's unique version of the show. "We have Grover, but Grover speaks with a Punjabi accent. The rest of the characters are predominantly Indian, keeping in mind all the social issues we wanted to address."

Sesame Street characters have helped millions of toddlers to take their first steps towards literacy and numeracy, but they have an even greater significance in India, where a Sesame Street curriculum is used in more than 5,000 government-run day-care centres. And in the country's most deprived areas, teachers wheel modified vegetable carts - each fitted with a television and DVD player, powered by a car battery - into the slums to ensure that even vulnerable young people can watch the Indian version of the show.

With only 40 per cent of India's 164 million children under the age of 6 attending school, Sesame Street officials believe that the educational content of the programme, called Galli Galli Sim Sim in Hindi, could be transformational.

Sesame Workshop recently took the unprecedented step of creating Sesame Street preschools, a chain of profit-making institutions aimed at the country's burgeoning middle class. "We felt there was a lot of potential for impact and a lot of potential for growth," Ms Banerjee says. "We realised very early on that, in order to have a significant presence in India, it was important for us to have a strategy that did not just rely on having a TV show."

To date, 16 Sesame Street preschools have opened as franchises across the country, from New Delhi to Hyderabad. Another 30 are on the way and Ms Banerjee hopes that an additional 150 will be up and running in two years. "Education is a growing need in India," she says. "Quality is suspect, whether it's in the private sector or the public sector. There is a need to up the quality across early childhood education.

"Setting up schools wasn't an easy move to make. It took a long time convincing our board. But we wanted to change the paradigm around early childhood education in India."

Although the preschool market in the country is currently unregulated, the government has announced plans to introduce minimum national standards. But expectations at the Sesame Street preschools are already high, Ms Banerjee says. "We really need to protect the brand. We're very hands-on. Safety is paramount to us, hygiene is paramount, quality is paramount.

"We spent more than a year developing our core curriculum. It's not just Sesame Street materials; it's like any other preschool but it's structured around the philosophy of a whole-child curriculum and 21st-century learning."

Sesame Workshop's approach to its new business, however, is unashamedly commercial. The schools charge annual fees of between pound;200 and pound;900, depending on their location. "We're very competitively priced," Ms Banerjee says. "But we're not prepared to compromise on quality. We pay our teachers more than the market does - we insist on that.

"This is a paid-for model, so the schools are aimed at middle-class or upper-middle-class India. It's a market-based solution. It's a business. We've got targets: we want to break even in 2017 and make a profit in 2018."

But the project has been criticised by private equity investors and hedge-funders for being "married to its mission" at the expense of profit, Ms Banerjee says. "We are straddling two worlds. It's not going to be easy, it's going to be challenging, but I think we're on to something really good." Subsidised fees for less-affluent families could be offered in future, she adds.

In recent years, low-cost private schools have become an integral part of education provision across the developing world. Chains such as Bridge International Academies in Kenya, Peas (Promoting Equality in African Schools) in Uganda and Zambia and Omega Schools in Ghana are educating tens of thousands of children, with plans for rapid expansion.

Paid-for education is also becoming increasingly common in India, where 29 per cent of the six- to 14-year-olds enrolled in education attend private schools.

But Ms Banerjee says it is the success of Galli Galli Sim Sim, which has more than 20 million regular viewers, that underpins her organisation's mission. "We've got a lot of photographs of the muppets in the classrooms, which the kids love," she says. "Parents really recognise Sesame Street as an education brand. What we do well is `edutainment'."

The show has introduced new characters to deliver broader social messages - its main protagonist is a prime example. In contrast to the array of creatures who lead the US show, the main character in Galli Galli Sim Sim is Chamki, a five-year-old schoolgirl. "She is quite often in a school uniform, serving as a positive role model and reinforcing the importance of childhood education and access, but also breaking some of the gender stereotypes. She's very curious, she's very active, she does karate," Ms Banerjee says.

Sesame Street spin-offs in other countries have also introduced new characters to reflect societal changes.

And, given the sensitivities surrounding India's caste system that prevail today, Galli Galli Sim Sim's producers are at pains to feature children from all sections of society. Each episode must include people with a range of skin colours in order to represent the country's diversity.

"We have to be very careful what messages we are sending out subliminally," Ms Banerjee says. "It's painful at times. People don't understand why it takes so long to produce a children's TV programme. But it has to - we have to be very careful."

Find teaching resources from Galli Galli Sim Sim at tesconnect.comGalliGalliSimSim

Muppets with a message

Country-specific Sesame Street characters

Nigeria Zobi, a taxi driver who educates children about malaria

South Africa Kami, an HIV-positive muppet who dispels misconceptions about sufferers

US Alex, whose father is in prison; Aristotle, a blind muppet; Lily, a child who goes hungry because of her family's poverty


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