The textbook crisis now unfolding in Limpopo started much earlier than December last year, when the province's education department was placed under national administration.
It began more than a decade ago with the adoption of outcomes-based education (OBE), in which textbooks were not considered a requirement for effective teaching and learning. Teachers were required to develop their own learning material from resources available on the internet and their immediate environment.
But South Africa's publishing sector, which depends on education for 70% of its turnover, continued to develop textbooks that tried to make sense of a nebulous curriculum that drove many textbook authors and teachers to distraction. The quality of many of these textbooks was suspect — and many are still in the system.
When Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga declared the demise of OBE in 2010, she restored the textbook as the unassailable and essential resource required for quality teaching and learning.
In the same process, Motshekga hastily introduced workbooks to address many of the weaknesses she blamed on OBE, such as the disastrous literacy and numeracy levels among pupils compared with other countries.
Books essential to Caps
Both textbooks and workbooks were essential to the new curriculum assessment policy statements (Caps) that Motshekga said would replace OBE. New textbooks would be developed to support the introduction of Caps.
But the department then invited publishers to submit textbooks without specifying the quality requirements that would apply when these books were evaluated, so unhappiness among both authors and publishers was evident from the outset.
In December 2009 the port-folio committee on basic education invited public comment on how to provide quality education. As the founder of the Textbook Development Institute, I provided an overview on the quality and provision of textbooks in education.
The institute's research confirmed that countries recognised for the quality of their education systems, such as Singapore, Japan, Finland and Canada, were all actively involved in research on the quality and the classroom use of textbooks. Countries with weak education systems tended not to conduct textbook research, for instance, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain and South Africa.
Concerns expressed by the Publishers' Association of South Africa that not enough time had been allowed to develop new textbooks were ignored. In addition, the department's process of evaluating and approving textbooks was highly suspect. Of the more than 300 textbooks that publishers collectively submitted in June last year for inclusion in the department's national textbook catalogue, only 19 were initially approved.
In August 2011 the department and the United Nations Children's Fund announced a tender to research the quality, delivery and use of textbooks and workbooks for numeracy-mathematics and literacy-languages in schools. The tender award was due to be announced on September 30, but has still not materialised.
Numerous inquiries about the tender have been ignored, giving rise to perceptions that the department is not willing to expose its bungling in the quality assurance of the new textbooks and workbooks to outside scrutiny.
Yet another rushed and superficial process concerns the training of teachers to equip them to use the new textbooks effectively.
In-service training for teachers is meant to be provided as part of so-called continuing professional teacher development and in April 2007 the South African Council for Educators was mandated to develop a system for this purpose. Five years later, this system is not yet in place.
The inability of the national department to manage the delivery of textbooks to 5 000 schools in Limpopo should be a major cause of concern. The debacle confirmed what the sceptics have known for some time now, namely that the senior management of the department just does not have the experience, competence, ability or capacity to manage a massive system consisting of a bloated national education department, nine provincial departments, 81 district offices, 26 000 schools and 530 000 teachers providing learning to 12-million pupils, while it expends 20% of the total national budget.
The textbook debacle in Limpopo is only the tip of the iceberg and the basic education department's management of the quality, delivery and use of textbooks all require urgent further investigation.
Christiaan Visser is the director of the Textbook Development Institute, a non-governmental organisation based in Cape Town