Textbook debacle: Delivery just the tip of the iceberg

Missing books are a only a small part of far bigger problems in basic education. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Missing books are a only a small part of far bigger problems in basic education. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Will the textbooks, destined to become the most famous in South Africa's education history if they ever arrive at all 4 000 Limpopo schools, be any good?

Not necessarily. Officialdom's measures to ensure their quality amounted to "a lottery", said textbook experts this week.

Content quality is patchy and has been that way since at least 2010, according to those whose professional expertise lies in matching textbooks to syllabuses.

It was in September 2010 that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the "death of OBE" — the teaching method politicians had been touting for 15 years as the country's education saviour.

But outcomes-based education's funeral was also Motshekga's celebration: in the same breath she promised high-quality textbooks and workbooks, saying the rescue of South Africa's dire schooling, especially for the poorest pupils, hinged on them.

The scandal now centred on Limpopo has exposed one chronically weak link — delivery — in the official quality-control chain.

But equally weak were other links that included the content of textbooks across all subjects and grades, said experts, who preferred not to be named because their professional livelihoods were at stake.

Good-news acronym
"Caps" was the good-news acronym Motshekga offered in September 2010 as the country's new education-rescue plan — the "curriculum and assessment policy statements".

She glided past objections that this was the third new post-apartheid school curriculum. It amounted to far too many syllabus revisions in far too short a time, educationists said at the time.

Contradicting herself even at the birth of the new education messiah, Motshekga argued that there was not much new in the new syllabus, so pupils and teachers would easily cope if they just diligently applied themselves to the basics.

But Motshekga and her managers were failing to apply themselves to any basics at all, experts warned then.
This week, they renewed these alarms, saying quality control throughout the official chain was even worse now.

In the Limpopo debacle, the national department's negligence is most evident in its serial failures to solicit or, if necessary, demand information from the provinces on the delivery of textbooks and other learning materials and to verify their accuracy.

But the systemic quality problems are national in scope and occur well before there are any physical objects, such as textbooks, to be delivered (or not) at all.

Quality has been compromised
"The whole process of arriving at eight textbooks per subject has been so rushed since 2010 that quality has been compromised at every stage," one subject specialist said.

Said another, who cited international experiences of revising curriculums and introducing new ones: "It should really have taken many years — about three — to design Caps and train teachers in it and 15 to phase it in at schools."

There was an outcry in 2010 when Motshekga said Caps would be implemented four months later, the Mail & Guardian reported at the time. She aimed at Caps action being taken in January last year.

She delayed implementation to this year, when foundation phase and grade 10 pupils encountered Caps. By December last year, Limpopo had still not even ordered new textbooks, the M&G reported that month, a stasis that still prevailed when the newspaper followed up in January.

Across the country, a ruinous rush in the whole politically driven Caps express train has also enveloped the key process of reviewing or evaluating the textbooks that publishers offer the national department. From these textbooks, lists of eight books per subject are handed to provincial departments and schools from which to choose their orders.

Understanding the syllabus
"My greatest concern is that those the department appoints to review the books don't understand the syllabus," said a third educationist.

The anonymity of the reviewers has emerged as a major anxiety, just like the secrecy of the reviews themselves — publishers see them but the public does not.

"Why not publish the reviews for all to see?" asked one expert. "And if the anonymity is meant to counter corruption in the selection process, it arguably actively promotes it."

Said another, referring to the long-awaited delivery of the Limpopo books: "Yes — but delivery of what? The catastrophic tragedy won't be solved once the physical books are delivered and questions must be asked about the quality of all books in all classrooms across the country."

A month after pronouncing OBE dead, Motshekga released her signed "delivery agreement". It specified "a better monitoring mechanism" that was "about to be introduced, which will provide a much more accurate picture than what is currently the case of the degree to which learners have access to the textbooks they need".

She also referred to measures "to improve the provincial and school selection process" in her agreement dated October 2010.

The department was unable to comment on Wednesday.

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