One textbook for the country? A step backwards for SA education

This is a whirlwind week in South Africa’s parliament as they line up budget vote debates one after the other, following our 5th democratic general election since the end of Apartheid in 1994. I found the Daily Maverick’s pieces covering “the bits you need to know” from Day 1 and Day 2 very helpful, especially for one like me who just wants an overview.

SA_Parliament_armsThe speech which interests me most, and which has been the topic of conversation in our office the past day, was that by the Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga. She gave the Basic Education Budget Vote speech on Tuesday, 15 July. You can view the whole speech here (not too long a read).

Most people are acutely aware, both locally and internationally, that although our government has one of the highest spends on education, our state of education is in a crisis. Motshekga announced in her speech that Basic Education sees another increase in the budget of R2 billion for 2014/2015, which “confirms government’s commitment to education”.

Motshekga went on to state that “in the next 5 years we will make more aggressive, radical changes and appropriate interventions to turn our education system around.” And, the focus of these actions will be to strengthen quality, efficiency and accountability across all spheres of the education system. “The time has come to place responsibility and accountability where it belongs” which means failing districts and departments and poor service delivery will need to be answered for.

Many of the new focus areas outlined in the speech are really encouraging. For example, there is a strong emphasis on teacher professional development and accountability, sorely needed in South Africa. As Motshekga rightly pointed out “the old cliché that says every education system stands and falls on its teachers is very true.”

Another interesting point raised during the speech is that history could soon be a compulsory subject in all schools to contribute to “nation building, national pride, patriotism, social cohesion and cultural heritage.” The department is currently conducting research into other countries in which History is a compulsory subject.

But, there was one paragraph in the speech which is cause for major concern, for me personally, for the publishing industry, and more importantly, for the continued growth of a health education system. The following is from the speech about textbooks and workbooks, with my emphasis added in:

Since 2011/12, the sector has spent R7,7 billion on the roll out of textbooks for the implementation of CAPS over the last 3 financial years. 2014/15 has been targeted as the year by which the sector will be moving towards one textbook, per learner, per subject.

The sector has developed, printed and delivered 204 million Grade R to 9 Language and Mathematics workbooks to 24,000 public schools, twice a year since 2011 and will continue to do so in the coming years.

Low retention and retrieval of these valuable resources has militated against the provision of a textbook for each learner per subject at the commencement of the school calendar year.

Budgets provided in PEDs for the 2014/15 financial year and beyond are therefore used to provide top-ups for damages, non-return and shortages as a result of the inward migration of learners.

Following a national screening process a single core textbook will be listed for each subject on the national catalogue to ensure universal coverage. There will no longer be eight titles per subject simply because the high costs involved demand a more rational and cost-effective approach.

Millions of textbooks and workbooks have been delivered to schools; the focus from here onwards will be to continue to monitor utilisation to improve learning outcomes and impact. Parents, educators and officials have an important role to play to ensure that the tax payers’ investment in the future of our children is not wasted.

Firstly, I can fully understand and appreciate that the DBE is trying to cut costs as traditional, printed textbooks are expensive, and do not last for 5 years, as DBE would like. They are lost, ruined or not returned by learners at the end of the year – this is normal.

But, I cannot comprehend how limiting the country to one textbook per subject is at all a feasible idea that will help mitigate these problems, and definitely will not “ensure universal coverage”.

In our current system, all publishing houses submit proposed textbooks for an anonymous review process. Several titles are then chosen, based on a number of criteria, which are then listed on the national approved catalogue. Schools then choose from this approved list of several textbooks per subject per grade, those which they feel best suit their needs and budget.

This has ensured that we have a competitive, healthy system, which is inclusive and diverse. No where is it more true than in education that one size does not fit all. And especially so in South Africa where we have a vast range of school contexts, there is no single resource that will suit all of our children. We need diversity for a diverse nation. We also need healthy competition to remain accountable.

To satisfy South Africa’s diversity and challenges we need a range of resources to suit the needs of our educators and learners. (Photo credits at end)

What the DBE is proposing to have only one approved textbook for the whole country will be detrimental. Perhaps DBE reasons that it might make textbook procurement and delivery logistically more simple, which we know very well has been a sore point for DBE over the past few years. But, I do not see how this will help drastically reduce costs or increase retention of books in schools over 5 years.

Also, if there is only one spot that all publishing houses have to compete for, this makes the system even more susceptible to corruption and bribery to get that spot. And, will the DBE then put a cap on the price charged for this one textbook? What happens the next year when top ups are required (for textbooks which undoubtedly will still go missing or be ruined)? Will the selected publisher be in the position to just increase the price of that textbook as they have a captive audience for the next 5 years?

Just 3 weeks ago, i gave a presentation at the International Conference on “Open Educational Resources and Digital Education”, held in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. I spoke about what we are doing at Siyavula, using openness, technology and communities to make a difference to education in South Africa. (View the slides for my talk here.)

In the lead up planning discussions to my talk, I mentioned to the organisers about how our textbook procurement works in South Africa, and the fact that we had a catalogue of titles per subject to choose from. They were amazed by this and asked that I specifically talk about this to the conference delegates. The reason for this is that in Kyrgyzstan, they only have one textbook, produced by the state, for the whole country. They found our system progressive and something to work towards. To them, our system is a step in the right direction. How ironic, and terribly sad, that we could potentially be taking a large leap backwards for education in South Africa.

I have not gone into how open education and open educational resources have the potential for a radical impact, but (as I cannot help myself), two of the fundamental benefits of OER, which relate directly to the challenges DBE is trying to address, are:

  • They are free, so if schools wanted printed textbooks they would only have to pay printing costs, which could be aggregated in a province for mass printing to bring down the cost. (The possible savings could even allow for printing each year instead of every 5 years so learners could keep textbooks from one year to the next.)
  • They are openly licensed, so even if there was one textbook, say for example for Physical Sciences, an educator, or parent or school district, could take the content and adapt it to suit their needs, for example by putting in their own notes or activities suitable to their context and environment.
  • They are available in multiple formats, so learners can access the content online or on their mobile phones, in class, after class or even in next year to review the previous year’s work.


In stark juxtaposition to the DBE’s proposal, David Wiley wrote an article this week on “The Open Education Infrastructure and why we must build it”. He proposes the following four components as the key structural elements that provide the supporting framework for a successful education system:

  • competencies or learning outcomes
  • educational resources that support the achievement of those outcomes
  • assessments by which learners can demonstrate their achievement of those outcomes
  • credentials that certify their mastery of those outcomes to third parties

What we then need to do is to apply open to each of these components for a truly effective, innovative model of education. Wiley expands on this so succinctly that I’ll leave it at that for now and recommend that his article is required further reading.

A closing remark is that I fundamentally believe that we need diversity in everything that we do to fully embrace and be inclusive of our diverse nation, and at the same time, rising to its challenges. To me, open education has the potential to fulfill this role.


Photo credits for collage of South African schools

From top to bottom, left to right:

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