Behind the scenes: greed and self-interest shafts our children’s education opportunities. By Marietta van Rooyen
By now few people in the country are unaware of the textbook delivery problems in Limpopo. There are now at least four different commissions of enquiry looking into it.
The media frenzy over this failure of delivery is instructive: similar stuff has been happening in school textbook provision all over the country for almost two decades now with hardly an eyebrow being raised.
Amongst all the buck-passing and denials and finger-pointing, the one obvious question has not been asked, namely, how is it possible that neither the national department nor the province could not know that no textbooks had been ordered. One phone call to a major school or publisher or just checking an order book would have sufficed. The fact is, everybody knew no orders had been placed and did not care.
After 1994, it was really hard to turn several race-based departments plus four provinces plus homelands into nine provincial departments of education. The logistical problems were understandably challenging.
The system that emerged was one of the central education department setting curricula and policy and then it was up to the provinces to select and order textbooks. This was often not done very well as there were no systems and procedures yet.
Some provinces opted for direct purchasing from publishers, which at times created chaos, as provincial education departments lack adequate warehouses, computer systems, delivery vehicles and trained staff to get the right books to the right schools. This task requires a great deal of infrastructure and expertise in logistics.
Some departments kept purchasing via booksellers who had to tender for certain districts. Since booksellers had been doing a rather good job of this for decades it should have been a good system but tenderpreneurs and nepotism saw to it that inexperienced and ill equipped people were now held responsible for this complex task. The intention was to empower black booksellers and distributors.
In 2003 some provincial education departments started using one distributor with all the right political connections to deliver learning materials for the Revised National Curriculum Statement.
These various systems have been going for almost two decades now, sometimes working reasonably well for a while in one province, sometimes simply collapsing as it did in Limpopo. The Eastern Cape has seldom had any system that worked properly (and notoriously often fails to pay suppliers).
The national department has been very aware of all these failures and their response to this was to centralise. With the new CAPS (Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements), the new curriculum at present being introduced to replace OBE, the department decided that the answer was to create one catalogue of only eight titles for each subject.
The result has predictably been chaos with endless disputes because of poor selection techniques, faulty catalogue information and so forth. One publisher won a court case against the department for arbitrarily throwing out their submissions.
The intention is for the central department to do central ordering for the whole country, although they had to postpone this since they were clearly nowhere near a position to do so effectively. The Limpopo debacle casts severe doubts over the department’s ability to handle anything better than even the worst province. For the moment then, provinces are still ordering their own books, albeit from a central catalogue drawn up by the department for new CAPS material.
Sting in the tail
Against all logic and evidence, the government blames the problems on publishers. So they decided to start a government publishing house to turn out textbooks for schools.
A start was made by spending a prodigious amount of money on “workbooks”, printed, according to the media, by a company related to the DG’s in-laws. Needless to say, these workbooks did not go through the same gruelling selection process as those produced by publishers, and the distribution thereof has been a hit-and-miss affair. Many schools now only work from these workbooks since the textbooks are not available.
The department was then offered open-licensed textbooks for Mathematics and Science Grade 10 -12 developed by Siyavula (a Shuttleworth Foundation project). These were printed and distributed and since it was sponsored were of course much cheaper than the commercially available books.
The Shuttleworth Foundation has moved on to other projects, so the next printing will have to be sponsored by another big company. This makes one wonder about sustainability. What is peculiar about this venture is that these textbooks, like the workbooks, were never subjected to any form of rigorous selection process. It seems as if quality is not an issue if the government produces a book or if it is given free.
If anyone had any illusions about the capability of the Department of Basic Education they must have been shattered by now. The idea that this same department, the one that cannot control its provinces or its trade unions and produces such pathetic matric results, can become a viable source of good textbook publishing is not credible.
Sadly, that does not mean it will not happen. Government publishing has been widely experimented with in Africa with uniformly disastrous results.
So perhaps you are asking yourself whether all this really matters. Do teachers and students need textbooks at all? This question has been researched for years all over the world and the answer is, “Yes.” It holds true particularly for semi-trained teachers in under-resourced schools. Good teachers in schools with large libraries can probably manage without textbooks; most of our teachers cannot, especially not when they have to try to cope with a new curriculum.
Marietta van Rooyen is an independent Skills Training Specialist. She has been a board member of the SA Board for People Practices and has served on the SAQA Board for eight years.