The National Institute for Open Schooling serves millions of children every year, and its programs, including the Open Basic Education program should be recognized and supported under the Right to Education Act. Instead, some important programs of NIOS are facing cuts.
There are a variety of reasons that children may not attend or may not thrive in a legally recognized, Board-affiliated school and for these children, Open Schooling offers a meaningful path of education and vocational training and certification. In the case where the reasons stem from poverty or injustice, we should certainly address these causes and clear the obstacles for school admission and achievement. Nonetheless the option of open schooling should remain available. To close the option of open schooling while there are still people who want and need it and are making good use of it, is a disservice to those people, who for the most part are among the poorest and marginalized sections of society. There are also people who opt for open schooling by choice. And why not – the freedom and flexibility and respect for the learner that NIOS builds into its learning programs are difficult for any school to match. See for example, this description of the NIOS Open Basic Education program for children aged 6-14:
Like all Academic and Vocational Programmes, the foundation of the OBE programme is based upon openness and flexibility. The registration period is valid for five years thereby not only giving freedom to the learners to choose their subjects but also to study at their own pace. It also provides freedom to select the medium of their choice. A learner has a choice of Hindi, English or any Regional Language as medium of study. Like all academic programmes, OBE programme has no upper age limit for any learner, though children below the age of 6 years are not registered in the programme.
Although the RTE Act states that schools cannot deny admission, and aims to enroll every child in school, there are many who are unable to go, who go and find conditions intolerable, or who are, in violation of the law, denied admission. There are also children attending schools that are not legally recognized as schools. There are trusts, co-operatives and other organizations running schools under a variety of circumstances and conditions that are not recognized within the purview of the RTE Act – for example, they may be teaching in a local language, with staff that does not have B.Ed degrees, or teaching in a refugee camp or in a region zoned for displacement and therefore not allotted any schools or other government services. They may be teaching children with different learning styles or abilities in a way that is customized to the special needs and abilities of each learner.
After attending such a school a child may appear for the Secondary exam through NIOS, and possibly continue in a mainstream college or other course afterwards. NIOS also offers the Senior Secondary exam. The service is available to all out-of-school learners regardless of reason for not enrolling in school. In 2011- 2012, 2.5 lakh students passed the Secondary (10th standard) and Senior Secondary (12th Standard) NIOS exams.
At the National Institute of Open Schooling’s 25th Anniversary celebrations at Chennai, a student spoke about the importance of NIOS and the need to make more people aware of the educational options it offers: There are so many people like us who do not thrive in the conventional system, but do not know that they have another option. And it is for this reason that each of us must become personal ambassadors of NIOS. Whenever I explain the concept of NIOS to anybody, more often than not, they say, ”Wow, I didn’t even know that such a great framework exists!”
– Aditi Parekh, “The Power of Open Schooling”
If you read the 2010-2011 Annual Report of the NIOS, you will see an institute that is functioning well, whose leadership takes seriously its mission to reach those in need, and works wholeheartedly to extend and improve its services, in the public interest and without profit. The inspiring letter from the chairman, S.S. Jena concludes, “The ever-increasing student enrollment and collaboration with premier institutions indicate the confidence of the society and Government in the multifarious activities of the NIOS.” In a climate of growing privatization and commercialisation of education and weakening government support for public education it is very important to support an institution whose stated goals are “universalisation of education, greater equity and justice in society, and the evolution of a learning society1.”
Therefore it is alarming to read, later in the same NIOS Report, that although the institute is doing so well and serving so many across the country, it is being curtailed or discontinued in the name of Right to Education. I quote: “However, in the light of the RTE Act, NIOS will have to discontinue catering to children [up to] 14 years of age after 20132.” In July 2012 the government extended this deadline to March 2015. but the Twelfth Plan (2012-2017) does not mention the Open Basic Education program and focuses on NIOS services for secondary education and vocational training3. The main program serving children up to age 14 is the Open Basic Education (OBE). With the future beyond 2015 looking bleak, many of the OBE study centers have already begun to close, leaving millions of children with no other route towards mainstream education.
What will happen to the millions of children who depend on the NIOS?
At a meeting held in November 2013 at Gujarat Vidyapith, a number of educators from various institutes including Nai Talim Samiti, Azim Premji Univ, Vigyan Ashram and Multiversity’s Taleemnet, endorsed a letter to the Prime Minister calling for strengthening of State Boards of Secondary Education as well as the NIOS. Nyla Coelho of Taleemnet made a similar appeal during the Right to Education session at the India Homeschoolers’ Conference held in March 2014.
Homeschooled children in India who need a certificate for admission into any stream of their choice after the tenth standard, have been able to meet this need through the NIOS. While there are private services and international boards, these are expensive and have no commitment to the public, as NIOS does. Homeschoolers who have taken the exams through NIOS have also identified needs for improving the way the examination is administered. For example, recently a child in Maharashtra taking the 10th standard exam through the NIOS was shocked to find that when he asked for additional paper to continue his answers, he was not allowed, as the rules state that only one sheet is to be provided per student. The family has filed a case to change this policy. Perhaps other students suffered because of this unfair rule but did not have the means to file a case; if the rule is changed and students are allowed enough answer sheets to complete all the questions, this will benefit all who take the exam. If the reason that students are allowed only one answer sheet has to do with staffing limitations of the NIOS, then we must advocate for the NIOS to get the required budget to hire additional staff and see that students are empowered to do their best.
Currently no body has announced or proposed closure of the NIOS, but many parents are worried, after seeing the cuts to the OBE program. Cuts to NIOS would create problems for millions of students who depend on this institute and cannot afford other means as well as those who opt for the NIOS by choice. Even if the RTE is fully implemented and schools are available, people who are affected by displacement, migration, unemployment, sub-minimal wages, ill-health and other issues may not be able to complete 10th standard through the school system and need the option of appearing for the exam through NIOS. Even if the day dawns when people enjoy land rights, sustainable livelihoods, living wages, health security and accessible schools, the NIOS is part of the educational safety net and serves those within as well as outside of the formal school system.
Therefore in solidarity with all out-of-school learners, including millions of open learners already registered with the NIOS, and with the hardworking staff of the NIOS, all of us who care about education in India and about keeping educational options open for our children must stand together in support of the National Institute for Open Schooling. We need to urge the Ministry of Human Resource Development to recognize the role of the NIOS and all of its programs including the Open Basic Education program in fulfilling the mission of the Right to Education and to support the multiple paths of learning that children in India are following. We must demand that the NIOS remain open and receive greater support to improve the quality and reach of its services.
I am grateful to Dola Dasgupta, Nyla Coelho and participants at the session on Right to Education and the National Institute of Open Schooling held at the India Homeschool Conference, 23 February 2014.
1 NIOS, “What is NIOS?” Source: http://oer.nios.ac.in/wiki/index.php/About_NIOS accessed March 2014.
2 From the NIOS 2010-11 Annual Report. The NIOS website states: “The MHRD letter vide no. DO 10-4/2009-EE-4 dated 7th April 2010 has permitted NIOS to continue its OBE programme for 6-14 age group for a period of three years wef 1st April, 2010.” Source: http://www.nios.ac.in/study-centre(aiaviobe)-corner/obe-programme.aspx accessed March 2014.
3 “The Twelfth Plan will strengthen the infrastructure facilities for NIOS and 16 State Open Schools (SOS) under RMSA in order to improve the outreach of open schooling programmes with special focus on skill development and vocationalisation, particularly in the educationally backward districts of the country.”
Source: http://planningcommission.gov.in/plans/planrel/12thplan/pdf/12fyp_vol3.pdf accessed March 2014.