A price war raging between the basic education department and publishers throws into doubt whether Limpopo schools will receive the textbooks they need for next year.
The Mail & Guardian has learnt that schools across the country are participating in the selection of textbooks from a national catalogue, but Limpopo schools are not. Schools in this province will not select preferred textbooks for teaching Caps, the new curriculum — the basic education department will supply them with the "cheapest" books available. Caps will be taught in all school grades except grades seven, eight, nine and 12 next year, and new textbooks are required.
The situation is in contrast to the selection approach the department began implementing nationally in 2010. With the help of curriculum experts in workshops, teachers and principals evaluate scores of sample textbooks publishers have supplied to the department. Poor schools then choose the textbooks to order from publishers, but through their provincial departments. The process was undertaken to ensure that schools selected quality textbooks from those placed on the national catalogue, experts told the M&G.
Some teachers in Limpopo have already voiced concern that the textbooks delivered to their schools in recent weeks are not what they ordered. A teacher said this week her school had not started using the textbooks, because they were not what the teachers had been trained to use in workshops and some were of poor quality.
She said that because the books were not those they had ordered, they did not correspond with the samples they had been using since the year started. "We are still photocopying the samples for our learners," she said. "The Tshivenda book is very poor; you ask yourself how did this book make it on to the national catalogue?"
Publishers have agreed to supply the department with the cheapest textbooks available for the current schooling year, but one told the M&G they did this to "help the Limpopo education department out of a really difficult position". But they said it would be financially detrimental for them if the department used the same system to procure textbooks for 2013.
A question of survival
"If publishers are pushed to reduce their prices further, they will not be able to survive."
In a letter sent to publishers more than two weeks ago, which the M&G has seen, the administrator of the Limpopo education department, Mzwandile Matthews, stressed the indication of "lowest prices" for textbooks.
The "guiding principle" in ordering textbooks for Limpopo, Matthews said in his letter, "will remain the reduced price and availability of the consignments".
The basic education department remains in control of the provincial department since it was placed under administration in December.
Publishers have complained to Matthews about the procurement process the department follows. But Hope Mokgatlhe, the ministry's spokesperson, denied that the department was planning to buy the cheapest books for Limpopo schools.
"The department has no intention to purchase the 'cheapest' books but books whose prices would not be higher than those in the national catalogue," Mokgatlhe said.
Bad news for teachers
Barring teachers from selecting textbooks will adversely affect teaching, experts have warned.
"If the teachers cannot work comfortably with the textbooks they have been given, the quality of their teaching will suffer," said Ruth Pressler, a curriculum expert.
"It is unlikely that officials will be aware of the needs of the schools, as is evident by the recent news that a school for the blind was sent material meant for sighted learners."
Carol Bertram, senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's school of education, said teachers would be affected differently.
"Some teachers will not mind just being given a textbook. Other teachers may find that the textbook chosen for them does not suit the needs of the learners and then they may not use it at all."
Meanwhile, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga cracked the whip at principals who spoke to the media about education problems in Limpopo's schools. Two principals who attended Motshekga's meeting with primary school leaders in Lebowakgomo on Wednesday independently confirmed to the M&G she "strongly" warned them against talking to the media.
"She opened [and closed] her address by reminding us that there is only one spokesperson for the [provincial education] department," one of the principals said.