OP-ED

Before we debate changes to sex education, let’s ask why the State is writing its own textbooks

By Warren Kliphuis 16 May 2019

Workers logging and packing textbooks at the Department of Education warehouse in Polokwane, South Africa on June 27, 2012 (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Elijar Mushiana)

The Department of Basic Education has announced plans to write and publish its own school textbooks to save costs and combat shortages in schools. This may seem like a good idea but it will, in fact, have a negative impact on teachers, school children and the economy.

One of the many challenges that schools face is the shortage of textbooks. Since the introduction of the CAPS curriculum, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has spent billions on textbooks for schools. Despite the large sums of money allocated to textbook purchases each year, schools continue to suffer from shortages.

There are five main reasons for these shortages:

  1. Schools do not have effective book-retention plans in place. This makes it difficult for some schools to retrieve books at the end of the year.
  2. Underprivileged schools and the communities they serve do not have the money to replace books that are damaged or lost during the year.
  3. Schools do not always have accurate enrolment data for the next year when it is time to order textbooks. This results in shortages when actual enrolment figures are larger than the orders placed. Learner migration also affects the ability to accurately project enrolments.
  4. Schools face several challenges that compete for the budget. This means that funds allocated towards textbooks sometimes must be used for other priorities, such as repairs and maintenance.
  5. Errors occur when orders are placed at a provincial level, resulting in schools receiving incorrect quantities.

The DBE has plans to develop its own textbooks (recently there was a lot of media attention on the DBE’s new Life Orientation textbooks and sex education), so that it can save costs and ensure that schools have greater access to textbooks. This might sound like a noble plan, but the unintended consequences will undermine teachers and have a knock-on effect on the economy. Consequences include:

  • Teachers will be stripped of their right to choose the textbooks that they want to use in class. Instead, they will be issued with a single state-published textbook;
  • The single state-published textbook will have to be used by all teachers regardless of their unique classroom situation. The state textbook will adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. This is neither practical nor educationally sound;
  • Most textbook authors are teachers. These authors will lose out on their royalties, which they have been using to supplement their teaching salaries for many years;
  • Teachers with new ideas or unique works will struggle to get published when local publishing houses begin to shut down. This means that they will lose the incentive to write and share their knowledge;
  • The companies that currently produce school textbooks will be forced to close their doors as their textbooks will no longer be purchased;
  • The amount of resources available to schools will decrease as publishing companies begin to shut down;
  • Thousands of people will lose their jobs and livelihoods due to the closures;
  • The state will lose out on the VAT, income tax and corporate tax that come from the sales of textbooks;
  • Only a handful of companies will survive. These will most likely be the internationally owned companies. Locally owned companies and SMMEs will not be able to survive without business or funding;
  • The companies that are left over will inflate their prices to cope with lower demand, which, in turn, will make classroom resources more expensive;
  • Learners will have reduced access to works by South African authors, as these become scarcer;
  • Only a handful of “connected” individuals stand to benefit from state publishing; and
  • Existing state-published textbooks are not “free”. A recent example showed that they are charged for, which negates the argument that substantial costs will be saved.

There is a much more sustainable way of achieving universal textbook coverage:

  • The DBE should complete all the amendments to the curriculum that it is working on and release this to the public;
  • The DBE should call all interested parties to develop new textbooks;
  • The DBE should screen these new textbooks for quality purposes and select the most suitable textbooks for placement on a national catalogue;
  • The DBE should give preference to local black-owned companies and SMMEs, ensuring that more textbooks from these companies appear on the national catalogue;
  • The DBE should roll out a national procurement portal that allows schools to access real-time enrolment data and their budgets when ordering textbooks;
  • The DBE should consolidate all orders placed in the national procurement portal so that a single consolidated order can be placed with textbook suppliers. This would allow the DBE to negotiate discounts on behalf of schools, based on the high volumes;
  • The DBE should develop and issue a national textbook retention system to help schools retrieve textbooks; and
  • The DBE should budget for schools to order “buffer stock” of textbooks so that damaged or lost books can be replaced immediately.

These proposed solutions will help to ensure that:

  • Universal textbook coverage is achieved in a sustainable way;
  • Textbook budgets are utilised and optimised;
  • Schools have access to a wealth of varied classroom material;
  • Teachers continue to exercise their right to choose the textbooks that they want to use in class;
  • Teachers can continue to contribute as authors, receiving acknowledgement and royalties for their work;
  • Local black-owned companies and SMMEs are given an opportunity to grow and innovate;
  • Thousands of people will be able to retain their jobs; and
  • The local economy is stimulated, and economic growth in the sector is achieved.

Instead of pursuing a state publishing programme, the DBE should divert its energy towards updating the curriculum, calling for new textbooks to be developed, issuing a new textbook catalogue and implementing a national procurement process that still allows for teacher choice.

Universal access to textbooks is a fundamental right, but State publishing is not the answer. DM

Warren Kliphuis is chairperson of the Publishers’ Association of South Africa’s Education Sector. The views expressed are his own.

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