Home schooling child studying
Humanity, perforce, has had to invent new, mostly virtual ways of delivering learning outcomes Image Credit: Stephane Yaich

A recent piece of good news in the family was that my niece cleared her 10th standard exams through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). She scored very high marks and now looks forward to joining a regular college in her hometown when educational institutions in India open post the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four or five years ago, when she opted to be homeschooled, all of us were worried. She was the first in our family to stop going to a regular school. The reason? She found both her fellow students and teachers unsuitable to her temperament. Being of a highly sensitive disposition, she found the atmosphere in school not entirely conducive to learning and personality development. To put it plainly, she was not happy in this school and a couple of others she tried.

She complained that the class sizes were too large, more than 45 students each. The teachers, sadly, were uninspiring and homework, predictably, excessive. It was as if much of the responsibility, if not burden, of education was shifted onto parents. If so, what was school, with such high fees, for?

In addition, even in middle school, the competition was already stiff. Before they were even ten, her classmates were under pressure to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Textbook centric, rote-learning was the norm. There was little scope for individual attention or interaction. Was it a school or a factory?

“I am not dropping out; I am going to learn from home,” was her answer to everyone’s worry and anxiety. Luckily, her immediate relatives were teachers themselves, running a preschool on the premises. In addition, her family ran a hospice for stray animals. There was so much to do at home that was, at the same time, a learning experience.

Ahead of the curve

Soon, I discovered that my niece was ahead of her peers in regular schools. But the worry was what would happen when she was ready to take her board exams. Would she have to return to a regular school for just a year? But who would give her admission just to enrol for the board examination? Most good schools would close their doors to her given that she had been homeschooled for so long.

That is when NIOS came to the rescue. Earlier known as the National Open School, this all-India board was established by the Government of India’s Education Ministry in 1989. Seeded on an experimental basis in 1979 by India’s premier Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the open school system was strengthened and upgraded by the National Policy of Education in 1986.

To extend open learning to all parts of the country, an independent board with its own curriculum and certification was set up. The aim was not only to universalise education, but to make it inclusive, equitable, and available to all. Ultimately, to make India a learning society.

This is because the NIOS allows any Indian of any age virtually to go back to school, as it were, and get a diploma. It presents a viable alternative to formal, classroom schooling with the entire curriculum through an Open and Distance Learning (ODL) platform. In addition, NIOS also provides Vocational Education and Life Enrichment programmes.

Instructional material is given in a variety of media including print, audio, video, contact programmes, and tutor-marked assignments. As many as 28 subjects are taught in eight languages (Hindi, English, Urdu, Marathi, Telugu, Gujarati, Malayalam and Odia) at the secondary and senior secondary levels.

A host of options

Moreover, 20 vocational subjects in a variety of areas such as Agriculture, Business and Commerce, Engineering and Technology, Health and Paramedical, Home Science and Hospitality Management, Teacher Training, Computer and IT related sectors, Life Enrichment Programmes, and General Services are also offered.

Not just homeschoolers and neo-literates of all ages, but so-called dropouts or left-outs can also opt for NIOS to complete their school education. To make itself accessible all over the country, NIOS partners with some 853 agencies and close to 7500 study centres from major cities, down to the zila or village-cluster levels, to implement their ODL platform.

What is more, each learner is permitted as many as 9 chances — the proverbial nine lives — to clear their boards. It is practically impossible to fail since these repeat-attempts can be spread over five years. Recognised all over the country by all major universities and colleges, the NIOS, with an enrolment of over 4 million, claims to be the largest Open Schooling system in the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has made home schooling the norm rather than the exception. The entire brick-and-mortar model of formal schooling, with its enormous investments in human resources as well as infrastructure, has remained largely unused or underutilised during this period. Humanity, perforce, has had to invent new, mostly virtual ways of delivering learning outcomes.

For most school-going children, online classes at home also require parental supervision. Contact with peers and classmates, so essential to learning, has been minimised to the on-screen mode. But once we have a method to get kids together in fun ways outside school, even this aspect of horizontal learning can be taken care of outside regular schools.

COVID-19 has thus given many a family occasion to rethink formal schooling. School enrolment seems necessary primarily for the stamp of social approval. Despite regular schooling most parents opt for live tuition or, increasingly, tuition apps to cover the curriculum. 

If the child can do much more at home, there should be no compulsion to send them to school. This may not be the best option for all, but it is certainly worth considering for some who are specially endowed or extraordinary.

Certainly, no parent needs to panic if their child prefers to be home schooled. It is not the end of the world nor the foreclosure of a bright future.