Open School Programme, Sri Lanka

  • Date published:
    27 August 2015
Open School Programme
© National Institute of Education

Programme Overview

Programme Title Open School Programme
Implementing Organization National Institute of Education
Language of Instruction Sinhala and Tamil
Funding cumulative funding from the Sri Lankan government, the Korean National Commission for UNESCO and GIZ
Programme Partners the Korean National Commission for UNESCO (from 2014), the German development agency, GIZ (2008–2012), and the Sri Lankan Government
Annual Programme Costs US $12,000 – US $16,000. Annual programme cost per learner is US $7.00
Date of Inception 2007

Country Context

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, located near the south-east coast of India. The country has a population of more than 22 million with the 15–24 age group accounting for 15% of the total population (UNESCO, 2014). The population consists mostly of Sinhalese (about 82%), Tamil, Muslims and Burghers, with some smaller ethnic minorities (UNICEF, 2013).

Sri Lanka has a problem with increasing numbers of school drop-outs. According to a demographic and health survey conducted between 2006 and 2007, 1.7% of all children aged between five and thirteen years dropped out of school (UNICEF, 2013), while almost every second Sri Lankan (43%) older than twenty-five did not complete secondary school education (UIS, 2013). Early school drop-out happens mainly in poor households in rural and urban areas, where children struggle to combine work and study. In this context, children who are affected by school drop-out are likely to belong to the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society. A survey conducted during 2008 and 2009 found that 57,315 school-aged children had to balance school and work at the same time (UNICEF, 2013). The negative attitudes of parents and children towards education is another factor contributing to high drop-out. One other possible explanation is the rigid nature of the present formal school system which has failed to transform this group into creative and productive members of society.

The National Institute of Education (NIE) believes that the Open School Programme offers an alternative to formal schooling, operating parallel to the formal system, which incorporates primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The NIE established an open educational system which to provide non-formal programmes as well. The Open School Programme is a first step towards expanding educational opportunities to achieve the aim of education for all. The programme provides multiple channels for those who have not attained a recognized basic qualification, which is crucial for furthering their engagement with education. It also helps learners to find jobs, and to enhance their professional knowledge.

Programme Overview

When the NIE was founded in 1985, its main purpose was to build the capacity of education managers, teacher trainers and teachers. The NIE was mandated to advise the government on matters related to the development of education in Sri Lanka. The objectives of the institute are to:

  • design and develop curricula for general and teacher education;
  • professionally develop educational communities; and
  • spearhead change through research and innovation.

NIE has become a centre of excellence in providing leadership for the development of quality education in a pluralistic and dynamic society. The Open School Programme contributes to this vision by providing wider access to sustainable and learner-centred quality education, up-skilling and training, through open and distance learning.

Nature of the Programme

The programme is offered at three levels and is organized in accordance with the formal secondary school programme, including:

Level 1 (equivalent to grades 6–7 in formal schooling)

Level 2 (equivalent to grades 8–9 in formal schooling)

Level 3 (equivalent to grades 10–11 in formal schooling)

Before starting the modules, students need to sit a test so that they can be assigned to the appropriate level. At the end of each level a certificate is awarded equivalent to a school certificate. The learners who complete the third level will be awarded a certificate which makes them eligible to sit the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level or GCE (O/L) examination. The programme adopts distance and open learning modes of delivery to maximize flexibility:

  • There is no upper age limit for registration on the programme – the lower age limit for admission is 15 years.
  • Learners can choose any of a given list of vocational subjects.
  • Learners have the chance to repeat unit tests in order to qualify for the eligibility certificate for GCE (O/L) examination.
  • Learners can complete the respective levels of study at their own pace.
  • Learners can complete the programme over a maximum of eight years starting from the year of registration.



The objectives of the Open School Programme are to:

  • Provide an alternative learning pathway to the formal school system, especially for those who have not completed their school education at grades 6–7, 8–9 and 10–11, and to provide, through Open School Level 1 (6–7), Level 2 (8–9) and Level 3 (10–11) continuing education through its regional and sub-regional study centres, island-wide.
  • Link up and expand opportunities for vocational education and build a bridge between general education and the world of work. Those with certificates from the Open School at levels 1, 2 or 3 are qualified for different levels of vocational courses.
  • Provide continuing education to the farming and other working communities to upgrade their education so that they become eligible for specific courses and programmes and can enter the world of work.
  • Improve productivity through the upgrading and updating of skills and competencies.
  • Promote facilities for continuing education so as to enhance the quality of people’s lives, whether in their workplace, or in academic, professional or other life enrichment areas.
  • Enable those whose education has been disrupted by natural disasters or other causes to return to mainstream education through the provision of short-term bridging courses.
  • Provide learning opportunities for people with disabilities, by taking education to their doorstep.
  • Provide opportunities to those who want to complete their education at secondary and senior secondary levels.
  • Provide opportunities to citizens who have been unable to gain adequate literacy and numeracy skills through formal schooling.
  • Promote social harmony in spite of diversity, through access, equity and quality education for all.
  • Promote the development of a learning society.

Programme Implementation

Open and distance learning (ODL) is a flexible educational system that brings education to the doorstep of the learner.


The Open School is promoted through provincial awareness-raising programmes. For the most part, participants in the Open School Programme are drawn from marginalized groups, for example women who have difficulties in accessing education, people with special needs, learners who dropped out of formal school and people who need vocational training. The programme identifies the needs of learners by conducting surveys, approved by the NIE Academic Affairs Board, and provides classes based on the outcomes. The programme has no special entry requirements and offers a flexible schedule for learners.

Facilitators and Tutors

Open School Programme tutors are teachers involved in non-formal education projects who have experience of open distance learning and adult education. Training courses for tutors are offered twice a year by NIE and cover course-writer and senior-tutor training. The tutors are trained to help learners in the development of practical knowledge and skills in the relevant subjects. Facilitators are teachers who are working as part-time tutors (after school hours), retired teachers or principals from formal schools. Some facilitators are paid; others are part-time volunteers from trustee boards. The paid facilitators receive between US $25 and US $45 per month for five sessions. In each lesson, tutors are expected to teach twenty learners.

Approaches, Method and Structure

Learning is organized using printed self-learning material (modules), audio cassettes, face-to-face sessions, personal contact programmes, and radio and television programmes. The self-learning materials, which are divided into three modules, are the main channel supporting the learners in their active learning.

The programme offers science, maths and Sinhala and Tamil language modules in order to enhance learners’ numeracy and literacy skills. In addition to these modules, face-to-face contact sessions are held in order to support participants in their learning.

Sessions are divided into:

  • Contact Sessions: Contact sessions are held at regional study centres during weekends to help learners overcome study problems and any feelings of isolation. At the same time, the sessions provide opportunities for learners to form study clusters and to get involved in group work and discussions.
  • Practical Sessions: With the collaboration of the Ministry of Skills, Vocational and Technical Education (MOSVT), a series of practical sessions is delivered at selected vocational training centres. Physical and human resources from non-formal education centres, computer learning centres, and vocational training centres operated by MOSVT are utilized for this purpose.
  • Personal Contact Sessions: Facilitators visit learners who need personal learning support, thus bringing education to the doorsteps of learners.

Curriculum and Materials

The Open School Programme curriculum comprises mother tongue education in Sinhala and Tamil, mathematics, science, English, vocational subjects, and home and community education. The content of these subjects is elaborated by NIE’s curriculum developers and academic staff who are also in charge of study material development.

The printed self-learning material is developed by the academic staff of the Open School unit and is written in both Sinhala and Tamil languages. Learners are provided with self-assessment kits and audio cassettes, compact disks (CDs) and activity books. Audio cassettes are used in language learning to teach correct pronunciation and language function. Each centre is equipped with an audio cassette player to support learners in following their modules. Television and radio programmes are planned.

Example: Home and community education modules

Module 1

The main purpose of the module is to develop the personality of the learner by explaining how to identify capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.

Module 2

The main focus of this module is on physical and mental health, with lessons on nutrition, physical exercise and hygiene.

Module 3

This module is designed to introduce institutions and organizations that provide services useful in the learner’s daily life and work, and to show how they can make use of them.

Assessment of learners

The performance of learners is assessed throughout the programme in order to provide them with continuous feedback. The evaluation of learning progress is conducted mainly through self-assessment and through assignments that must be completed at the end of each module. Each learner has to submit the completed assignment to the relevant study support centre. Facilitators will return the marked assignment to the respective learners. Tutors and facilitators also engage with learners during practical sessions and provide feedback on their performance. The marks obtained by learners in their assignments are recorded for continuous assessment.

An evaluation of the learner’s progress is conducted at the end of Level 3. The evaluation is carried out through assignments and a unit test, and the marks obtained are considered in further evaluations. For evaluation purposes, each subject is divided into different units and learners can take tests related to those specific units. The result of the unit test is communicated to the learner who can repeat the test in order to reach a higher performance level. Those who successfully complete the three levels will be awarded grade 7, 9 and 11 certificates, similar to formal school-level certificates.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The Open School Programme conducts monthly evaluations of each centre through supervision and monitoring programmes. Academic and non-academic members of the National Institute of Education visit and evaluate the progress of each regional centre as well as the progress of the learners and the impact on the community. The evaluation focuses on the following features:

  • Performance of the (senior) tutors.
  • Progress of teaching and learning activities.
  • Progress of the learners and their participation.
  • Implementation of the activity plan.
  • Success of community-awareness programmes such as, for example, the Dengue eradication programme.
  • General documentation of workflow.
  • Maintenance of books and files.

In addition, programme staff prepare four annual evaluation reports and each learning centre delegates senior tutors to attend progress review meetings to which they are encouraged to submit progress reports on the collaborating learning centre.

Impact and Challenges

Impact and Achievements

The Open School Programme has established twenty-five regional study centres and fifty-seven sub-centres, with more than 8,000 learners enrolled on the programme. In order to carry out the programme, 216 tutors and twenty-five senior tutors have been recruited. There are seventy-three modules, in both languages (Sinhala and Tamil), and two supplementary books in English have been prepared for learners. In addition, 244 learners completed additional language programme courses (Sinhala and Tamil languages), and 400 learners sat the O/L examination. About 160 learners passed the O/L examinations and twenty learners are following A/L (advanced level) classes, which offer an opportunity of two years of study in the field of science, maths, commerce or arts. Following completion of the programme, 200 learners have joined formal schools and 900 learners have been able to find jobs in various fields. The programme’s achievements include:

  • Organizing two international and four national workshops.
  • Conducting surveys on the learning needs of the learners.
  • Five learners getting through the Grade 5 scholarship examinations.
  • Preparing annual evaluation reports.

Due to the high demand for the courses, the National Institute of Education has taken steps to introduce vocational skills training courses, in subjects such as beauty, ICT and entrepreneurship. Two centres (Matale and Puttalam) are already using ICTs for correspondence and learners’ competence assessment, and an expansion of the course to other facilities is currently planned. Courses that reflect the needs of disadvantaged young people have also been introduced. These courses are in process of expansion as well.

The courses assist learners in starting their own ventures and support them in income-generating activities. Out-of-school children and disadvantaged young people are encouraged to continue their education and improve their technical skills to secure a prosperous future.

In the near future, the Open School plans to cooperate with technical institutes in introducing new vocational programmes. The need for technical subjects was identified in a survey. The Open School is now in the process of preparing the curriculum and appropriate books.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

  • Due to job engagements, learners sometimes have difficulties in attending the classes of the Open School Programme.
  • Children with special needs require more support from the programme.
  • There is a need for new technology (equipment and methodology).
  • It can be difficult to attract skilled academics to the programme.
  • Most education officials focus solely on formal education programmes, which are exam-oriented, and are reluctant to change or introduce innovative approaches.
  • Lack of funding in general, especially funds for printed material.
  • Lack of knowledge of international educational standards.


Sustainability is assured through the funding and support of several organizations. In the first five years (2008–2013), the German development agency, GIZ, funded the entire programme. Later, it was funded through NIE resources, while, currently, it is funded by UNESCO. In 2013, the Ministry of Education provided US $3,500 for the Northern Province of Sri Lanka under the compulsory education programme. In 2014, the Korean National Commission for UNESCO provided US $20,000 for Open School activities and agreed to fund the programme in future. The National Institute of Education Open School Unit is in contact with delegates of international organizations and local charity organizations to secure their support and to spread awareness of the programme.

Advertising campaigns have been undertaken to spread awareness in each formal school region, with principals, teachers, students and parents targeted. These activities helped the relevant authorities and organizations to get to know the Open School Programme and to recognise – and support – its contribution.

Presently, the support of social organizations helps ensure the programme continues without interruption. Every day, new organizations and individuals request the services of the NIE Open School Programme, a reflection of the high demand that now exists.



Dr. T.A.R.J. Gunasekara (Mrs.)
Director General
National Institute of Education
High Level Road
Maharagama, Sri Lanka
Telephone: +94117601620


Last update: 27 August 2015

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 27 August 2015. Open School Programme, Sri Lanka. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 10 December 2023, 17:48 CET)

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