Textbooks crisis: Damning report fails Motshekga

Titled National School Monitoring Survey and dated May this year, the data-packed, 340-page report brings Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s own performance into question. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Titled National School Monitoring Survey and dated May this year, the data-packed, 340-page report brings Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s own performance into question. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)


The availability of schoolbooks varies wildly across South Africa’s nine provinces, curriculum coverage in many classrooms is minimal and less than half of the country’s schools are adequately funded.

These are among the stark realities of dysfunctional schooling and inequality revealed by a survey the basic education department commissioned last year. The department is still to release the findings, but the Mail & Guardian has obtained a copy of the draft report.

Titled National School Monitoring Survey and dated May this year, the data-packed, 340-page report puts Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s own performance squarely on the line when its first page refers to her delivery agreement with President Jacob Zuma.

“No data sources previously existed” about the quality indicators in the minister’s agreement, the draft states. The survey provides new data that amount to tools for “monitoring progress” towards “the goals” of Motshekga’s agreement.

“More specifically, the study was aimed at collecting data on 15 of the 38 indicators contained in the [department’s] ‘Action Plan to 2014’ [education.gov.za],” the report says.

This was the grand scheme that Mot­shekga announced in 2010 would replace outcomes-based ­education and rescue rock-bottom literacy and numeracy among the country’s 12-million pupils.

The 15 “indicators” include pupils’ access to textbooks and workbooks, school infrastructure, curriculum coverage, libraries, district offices, teacher vacancies and absenteeism, and school funding (See “Measuring quality”).

How the poor lose
Only 47% of the country’s 12-million pupils are in schools “that are funded at the minimum levels” that government policy defines, the survey found.

“It is clear that a school’s fate is determined by the province it is in rather than by its quintile [income] classification,” it states.

In only three provinces are more than 80% of pupils funded at the minimum level or higher: the Free State (95%), the Western Cape (89%) and Gauteng (84%).

The survey slams the inequitable funding treatment that the poorest 60% of schools endure: “Considering that [these] are no-fee schools and completely dependent on government funding, these figures are a serious concern and require further investigation to ascertain the source of the problem and determine a viable solution.”

More than 80% of school principals surveyed said their ability to manage their schools was impaired. They identified late or non-payment of allocations to their schools and “unclear [government] information about their allocations” as major problems.

Where are the books?
Conducted well before the textbook and workbook debacle still unfolding in Limpopo, the survey found such a mixed picture that the delivery and monitoring rot now visible in Limpopo appears to afflict the whole country.

Despite departmental policy that all pupils should have both kinds of books available to them, the survey found that:

  • Only 38% of grade sixes have access to a language workbook. The Free State was best supplied (72%), and Limpopo the worst (11%).
  • A brighter picture emerges of maths workbooks – 85% of grade sixes have them.

But this national average conceals huge provincial discrepancies: in Gauteng, North West and the Western Cape, 88% of pupils had these books, but only 69% of Mpumalanga pupils.

Textbook data show similarly crippling inequities across provinces. Whereas 83% of grade sixes nationally have maths textbooks, only 50% of Free State pupils do, for instance.

Some schools did not receive books at all, or too late, or not enough, the survey’s researchers were told – and some received books in the wrong language.

“In the absence of textbooks, learners are often exposed to only fragments of the curriculum, presented through standalone worksheets or isolated short exercises,” the report states.

Curriculum? What curriculum?
Coverage of the official curriculum is wildly uneven and astoundingly thin: among grade nines nationally, less than 1% did an officially stipulated minimum of four language exercises a week and only 6% met this minimum in maths. Only 7% of grade sixes met the minimum of four language exercises a week, and 31% did the minimum four maths exercises.

Many schools “struggle to complete the learning programme” and “most schools do not even know the number of weeks that the curriculum should fit into”, the report states.

“If educators do not teach a topic which is supposed to be covered during the school year … then how will learners be able to perform on a test that is based on curriculum implementation expectations?”

The implications are even worse when pupils pass into higher grades, the report states. “If the required number of topics in a learning programme is not met, in subsequent years … the [pupil’s] accumulated deficit will widen as [he/she] progresses through the grades, because the basics were not covered sufficiently well or not covered at all.”

Anatomy of a wreck
Data from the draft report about schools’ management skills, infrastructure, libraries and teaching vacancies sketch a stark picture of the extremes of basic education’s crisis. For instance:

  • More than four million pupils nationally are in schools where  teaching posts are not filled;
  • Only 58% of schools could produce adequate management documents, such as budget plans, attendance rosters, mark records of pupils or an annual report;

Slightly more than half (55%) of schools meet “nationally determined minimum infrastructure needs”; and

Only a third (34%) of principals found the support they receive from district offices “satisfactory” (See “District despairs”).

Measuring quality
Conducted in 2 000 schools nationally, the school monitoring survey considered ­factors that radically influence education quality.

The 340-page draft report says its data is nationally representative and its extensive technical report explains how the survey’s design aimed to ensure reliability.

This included research on data that would cast light on 15 “indicators” and involved the development of standardised questionnaires for schools, ­training field workers, securing the raw data they collected and customising computer software to process it.

After pilot tests early in 2011, the survey went ahead in the fourth school term last year.

“The random samples – of schools, pupils and educators – were designed in such a way that the findings would be representative of the full population,” the draft states.

Because seven of the 15 quality indicators were departmental priorities, they were more “intensively investigated”. They were:

  • Curriculum coverage;
  • Access to textbooks and workbooks;
  • School libraries;
  • Schools’ management documents, such as budget plans;
  • School funding;
  • Physical infrastructure; and
  • Support district offices offer schools.

But resource and time constraints meant the survey still lacked “more in-depth data [that] would have added to a richer analysis” for complex indicators such as curriculum coverage and availability of workbooks and textbooks.

Before the survey had even begun, the department narrowed its focus. Regarding books and curriculum coverage, the monitoring was originally to have looked at grades three, six, nine and 12; and at languages, maths and the sciences.

“However, given that provision was made in the [department-determined] terms of reference for only two field workers in a school and for one day only, there was insufficient person power or time to cover all these grades.”

Only grades six and nine, and maths and “the predominant language of learning and teaching [in a given school]”, were surveyed for these indicators. – David Macfarlane

District despairs
That only 34% of school principals said the support they receive from their district offices was “satisfactory” points directly to one of the weakest and most disregarded links in the basic education quality chain.

Schools rely on district officials for their most immediate needs and in any emergencies. Practically speaking, a district office is also a school’s conduit to the government education hierarchy, stretching from provincial to national departments.

“Education districts form part of the provincial government,” the report states. Their functions include “supporting schools, holding schools accountable through monitoring” and “informing and consulting with the public”, while “upholding batho pele [people first] principles”.

They are supposed to provide an “enabling environment for schools to function”, assist ­principals and teachers “to improve quality of learning and teaching” and “facilitate ­information communication technology connectivity”.

The survey asked principals detailed questions about the officially defined functions of the districts. That two-thirds of school heads could not express even minimal satisfaction with them suggests that policy­makers have not begun to address this long-standing ­problem. – David Macfarlane

The minister is ‘concerned’
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and ­department director general Bobby Soobrayan “are naturally ­concerned about the picture that the draft report of the survey paints nationally”, department spokesperson Hope Mokgatlhe said.

“However, it should be noted that the survey merely reiterates what is already known about the problems in basic education … The survey serves as a baseline to track the effectiveness of our interventions.

“The minister’s delivery agreement with the ­president is signed also by other ­partners, including provincial education ministers,” she said. “Progress reports on the delivery ­agreement are provided on a quarterly basis.”

She said the draft report was “in its early stages … We are in the process of interrogating its findings.” The department was “checking some of the findings against its administrative data and other data sources”.

About covering the curriculum, Mokgatlhe said: “The survey did not specifically monitor how the new curriculum is being implemented. It should be noted that Caps [curriculum assessment policy statement] was implemented only in the foundation phase and grade 10 in 2011 [and] this survey was not confined to these grades.”

Asked why the department narrowed the focus of the survey from the originally intended four grades to two, Mokgatlhe said: “Time and resources did not make this possible. The survey would have cost much more if these elements would have been included.”

The department paid R6-million for the survey and “will continue to undertake its own monitoring [of the indicators covered in the survey] through its existing systems and processes”. – David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane


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