Life After Universal Primary? Scaling Schooling for the Secondary Surge  

A seminar based on this paper was presented
by Sir
John Daniel on 30 January 2007

Life after Universal Primary?
Scaling Schooling for the Secondary Surge

Frances Ferreira, Asha Kanwar and John Daniel Commonwealth of Learning



Our title is Life after Universal Primary: Scaling Schooling for the Secondary Surge. The study that we shall report arose directly out dialogue between COL and the World Bank in 2007.

The outcome of that discussion was agreement that open schooling has potential for addressing the challenge of increasing access to secondary education now that Universal Primary Education (UPE) is on the way to being achieved thanks to the Fast-Track Initiative (FTI). COL pays tribute to the way that the World Bank's FTI Secretariat, working with donors and partners, has made this initiative into such a success.

Success creates its own challenges, however, and coping with the rapid increase in demand for access to secondary schooling stimulated by UPE is a real problem for countries that are still struggling to create the infrastructure for primary education.

Although open schooling may be part of the answer to the expansion of secondary schooling, the World Bank requires a solid body of research data about its effectiveness and efficiency before it can invest in it.

It is indeed a fact that far less evaluation and research has been done on open schooling than on open and distance learning in tertiary education. Therefore, after last year's discussions, COL decided to make a start on the research agenda.

We chose two open schools in rather different environments, the National Institute for Open Schooling (NIOS) in India and the Namibian College of Open Learning (NAMCOL), and commissioned research on their costs and effectiveness. The work was done by two well-known experts on cost studies, Badri Koul and Greville Rumble, who were already very familiar with the contexts in India and Namibia respectively. Their 250-page report (COL , 2007) is available on the COL website at

In this presentation we weave the key results of this research into a general presentation on open schooling. We hope that the World Bank will now take this research further and create a solid basis for helping governments invest in this approach.

We shall set the context for the expansion of secondary schooling, define open schooling, outline its development, summarise the results of the studies in India and Namibia and draw some conclusions about policy.


The Context for Expanding Secondary Education

We start with the context. In 20 years time three quarters of the world's population will be in Asia , Africa and the Middle-East. All these regions have struggled to provide education to their people. Already half of the world's population is under 20 and there are two billion teenagers in the developing world. This young population, if given adequate education and training, can become a huge human resource asset. Many African countries have launched major initiatives to introduce free primary education, but what happens when students graduate from elementary school? Can the existing secondary schools absorb the large numbers?

For example, at the primary level in Uganda the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is 118%, but only 41 % survive to the last primary grade (Global Education Digest, 2006, UIS). Of these, only 16% can be absorbed in the secondary school system.

When Kenya introduced free primary education in 2003, 1.5 million out-of-school children entered the 18,000 schools, which were bursting at the seams. (   While 73% survive elementary education, the GER at the secondary level is 48%. What are the options for the rest?

Far too few of them are receiving a secondary education (Figure 1). While the world average for secondary school enrolment is 65%, the GER in SSA is 30%, which is up from 19% in 1990/91 (At the Crossroads: Choices for secondary education and training in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), World Bank: Africa Human Development Department, 2007, p.4). Access remains inequitable, especially in rural areas with girls being particularly disadvantaged. As governments stretch their resources to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015, it is unlikely that the expansion of secondary provision will be a priority. And even if one new secondary school were to be built every month for the next ten years, the increased demand would not be met. What choices do policy makers have?

Figure 1



In its report 'At the Crossroads' the World Bank (2007) proposes a strategy that is ...parsimonious in resource use, recognizes the bottom-up sequential nature of education development, is closely aligned with national development priorities, anticipates labour market demand, strengthens school autonomy, ensures effective central direction and support, and builds public-private partnerships.... (p.28)

The Bank itself has undertaken analytical studies to underpin national policy and planning in support of secondary education through its instruments such as the Country Assistance Strategies and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. The growing sector of private provision is seen as a potential solution. Distance and open learning are seen as 'alternative pathways to learning and certification' (p.20) and while open schooling is mentioned, it is not projected as a major option.

However, we must realise that private provision, however helpful, is unlikely to reach the more disadvantaged, although it would be interesting to see if the International Finance Corporation (IFC) could encourage the development of private provision of open schooling at scale, including transnational open schooling.

Furthermore, we cannot forget about secondary education after youngsters reach their late teens. As well as the challenge of educating teenagers there is the challenge of providing useful education and training to young and not so young adults who missed the opportunity for it when they were younger. There are very large numbers of them because the drop-out at successive stages of the educational process is alarming.

Figures from Africa show some pretty dismal survival rates to the last primary grade and low gross enrolment rates in secondary in the sub-Saharan region (Figure 2). A cohort study (Figure 3) reveals the same thing. Ninety-three out of a hundred children enter primary school but only 12 complete their senior secondary education.

Figure 2

Figure 3


What is Open Schooling?

That is the context. What can open schooling do to help meet the challenge? What exactly is open schooling?

Its features are the physical separation of learner from the teacher for much of the time, the use of unconventional teaching methodologies and information and communications technologies (ICTs), and in general a flexible approach. We call it open schooling rather than open and distance schooling because openness and flexibility are more important features than physical separation.

In the context we have described open schooling is an appropriate response to the rapidly increasing demand for secondary education, both as an end itself and as a route to tertiary, because it can be conducted at scale and cost-effectively. Its flexibility also makes it suitable for young adults who need further schooling but either cannot or do not wish to return to the conventional classroom.

How is open schooling conducted? It uses self-instructional materials and, indeed, the preparation of such materials also provides an asset to the conventional school system, which in developing countries is usually short of materials. Students get local personal support at study centres, which at secondary school level are relatively more important than they might be at tertiary level. Organising the networks of study centres provides opportunities for partnerships with other state networks or with NGOs with a special interest in children and young adults. Finally, there is the opportunity to operate at scale and to use new information and communication technologies as they become locally available.

Before citing examples of open schooling in India and Namibia , we note that open schooling has developed over many years. It is not a new phenomenon. Open schooling by correspondence goes back a hundred years in the industrialised world and nearly 50 years in Africa .

The use of technology in open schooling is not new either. School radio began 75 years ago in Britain ; the Australian School of the Air is half a century old; and projects using technology for schooling in Africa have a similar history. Some of these projects aim to enrich the classroom experience rather than to create a substitute for it, which shows the flexibility of open schooling and its potential for complementing the conventional school system. We also note that some open schools operate at very considerable scale which, where it can be achieved, is an element of cost-effectiveness.

There are various organisational models of open schools - and sometimes one type evolves into another, as in the case of Namibia and India . Some open schools are independent; some are branches of open universities; some are run by central ministries of education and some by school boards. This is another element of flexibility for policy makers.


Open Schooling in India and Namibia

We now turn to our study of the open schools in India and Namibia .

The National Institute of Open Schooling, formerly the National Open School , is headquartered in Delhi with regional centres in 11 cities and a presence in Nepal , Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (Figure 4). Study centres are provided by 3,000 accredited institutions which register students, supply study materials, provide tutorial support, handle assignments, hold exams and distribute certificates.

Figure 4  


NAMCOL, the Namibian College of Open Learning is headquartered in Windhoek and has 110 study centres in the country's 13 political regions as well as two computer-based learning centres in Windhoek & Ongewediva (Figure 5). It accounts for some 18% of the secondary school population and a much higher proportion at senior secondary. At Junior Secondary Certificate (JSC) level NAMCOL's contribution is 11%, while at Senior Secondary it is 49% (COL , 2007, p.179). Most of its students are female.

Figure 5


Figure 6 shows some comparative statistics for the two institutions. The gaps in the table remind us that there has been little research on open schools. Nevertheless, the numbers make these significant operations.

Figure 6


Figures for the enrolments in India (Figure 7) show that the focus is mainly on academic programmes although at the moment much more emphasis is being placed on developing vocational programming.

Figure 7 


For Namibia Figure 8 shows that NAMCOL plays a very significant role at senior secondary, where 48% of the senior secondary students who sit their end-of school examinations are enrolled at NAMCOL.

Figure 8

Comparing the learner profiles between India and Namibia reveals both similarities and differences. Both institutions recruit students in the age range 15-25 but the gender balances are mirror images of each other. Few NAMCOL students have paid work, but a significant minority is involved in other educational courses.

Figure 9 shows that NAMCOL's results are good, with around 90% of students who complete most of the course getting grades. Looking at it the other way around and adding up drop-outs and incompletes (Figure 10) gives an attrition that varies around 20%, which is good for this kind of education.

Figure 9

Figure 10


With these figures in mind the cost per student at NAMCOL (Figure 11) is very attractive at about 20% of the cost in the formal system. Perhaps reflecting on the scale of NIOS, the costs in India are even more impressive (Figure 12). Unit costs are less than 10% of those of the conventional central schools.

Figure 11 

Figure 12


The effectiveness of NIOS is also good. Taking a snap shot of four sittings in 2005/6, the majority of the conventional Boards have a throughput at Secondary Level that averages between 40-60%, while NIOS has a throughput of 58%. At Senior Secondary level the majority of the Boards have a throughput between 60-80% while the figure for NIOS is  61% (Figure 13).

Figure 13

Conclusions and Lessons from the Study

We conclude that open schooling is an activity of great potential crying out for more research. The problem is not just the poor data on open schools, but the poor data on secondary school systems generally, which makes comparisons of outcomes very difficult. We are a long way from having a PISA study on open schools!

In the real world, however, we often have to make decisions without all the data that we might like. The COL study shows that open schooling can address the challenges of increased demand and reach out to diverse target groups - from older secondary-school-age children to young adults.

Open schooling is significantly more cost-efficient than formal education and can have retention rates approaching 90%. Moreover, the production of learning materials in print, audio, CD-ROMS and video creates a resource for the whole national school system. These materials are an important asset because, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic decimating the teaching force, countries do not have the teachers they need and the use of distance learning material is an excellent way to avoid disrupting the learning process.

Open schooling is a powerful way of addressing issues of equity and social justice since it can bring the formerly excluded into the schooling system. It is also a vehicle for ramping up the proportion of technical and vocational education and training in the school system as a whole and for fostering innovation generally. For example, it is the open schools that have pioneered the idea of exams on demand at the secondary level.

What lessons does the study teach us? First, it shows that political will is necessary to make open schooling an integral part of a national education system and that this political will needs to express itself in the form of enabling policy and planning. Open schooling is a system that derives its benefits from scale. It cannot be improvised on the back of an envelope as a small pilot project. It follows that adequate human, financial and technical resources are critical to success and need to be planned. The economic model is that a higher upfront investment pays off in lower operating costs once the system is running.

Next, just as tertiary institutions embarking on open and distance learning need to train their staff to operate a different pedagogy and teaching/learning system, so staff from conventional schools must be trained in the special requirements of open schooling. Much of COL 's work with NIOS has been in support of training for its many thousands of tutors and facilitators. Learner support is the area of open schooling where attention to improvement is most needed. Indeed, open schooling shares this imperative with open and distance learning at all levels. Investment in learner support should be approached from the angle of staff development.

Finally - and this is really a great opportunity - creating an open school provides the opportunity for partnerships with a range of local governmental and non-governmental bodies. These can be true win-win affairs. The open school acquires a regional and local network of centres while the local bodies are enabled to provide more extensive services to the youngsters that they are caring for.

The Commonwealth of Learning will continue to make the promotion and support of open schooling a key plank of its work. We are also supporting the development of open educational resources for use in open schools.

But COL is a tiny agency. The purpose of commissioning this study was to encourage the World Bank, other development agencies and national governments to take open schooling seriously as a policy option for expanding secondary education. We hope that all these actors will commission the type of research that they need in order to expand open schooling with confidence.

This is not just a matter of supporting new open school projects. Many African countries, such as Malawi , Zambia , Kenya and Tanzania have had forms of open schooling for years but they have tended to operate in a grey zone below the radar. Were the World Bank and other development agencies to encourage governments to give open schooling a larger place in their secondary education policy considerable benefits could flow without large expenditures of funds.



COL (2007) Open Schooling for Secondary and Higher Secondary Education: Cost and Effectiveness in India and Namibia, A Commonwealth of Learning Report Prepared by Greville Rumble and Badri N. Koul, 266pp. 

UNESCO Institute of Statistics (2006) Global Education Digest

World Bank (2007) At the Crossroads: Choices for secondary education and training in SSA, Africa Human Development Department, p.4.  



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