Experts say the department has for years failed to monitor schoolbook deliveries.
The basic education department has known for at least five years that its provision of schoolbooks is inadequate across South Africa, reports obtained by the Mail & Guardian have shown.
In one report, it was found that 80% of a sample of 200 schools nationwide were not provided with enough textbooks for each pupil to have one.
"Only one school in the sample has provision for a textbook per learner in each learning area," said the 2007 report, titled The Provision of Learning and Teaching Support Materials to Schools: A National Review.
"For the rest of the schools, it is a vision beyond their imagination, as the funds they have access to are only a small proportion of what they would need for this."
Departmental officials compiled the report for then-education minister Naledi Pandor.
An official close to the survey at the time, who wished to remain anonymous, told the M&G the report's findings indicated "that the issues of textbook procurement, delivery at school, accounting for books that do not arrive at the school and delivery of learning and teaching support materials which are not the same as ordered is not a new issue, but has plagued the system for at least the past five years".
The M&G is also in possession of another unpublished report based on a survey last year that said about 30% of workbooks had failed to reach schools by April 2011.
According to this 500-school survey in seven provinces, at the "majority of schools, the workbooks quantities delivered were short".
"[The] shortage meant that it would be grossly unfair to distribute the workbooks to only some of the children in the class," the report stated.
The report was presented to the department in August, but has never been released.
A third, publicly available report showed that every second 16- to 18-year-old pupil interviewed in 2007 and 2008 indicated that they had to share desks and textbooks. Compiled by Social Surveys Africa and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, this report, titled National Study on Access to Education, was presented to the department in 2009.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga faces mounting calls for her resignation over the lack of delivery of textbooks to thousands of Limpopo pupils this year, but it is now clear the schoolbook crisis is neither unique to the province nor of recent origin.
On Wednesday, the Democratic Alliance in the Eastern Cape requested that the "crisis in education", including the "chronic shortage of textbooks and workbooks" in the province's schools, be discussed at next week's sitting of the Eastern Cape provincial legislature.
Experts said the department had failed in its obligation to monitor school book deliveries.
The official close to the 2007 learning material report told the M&G: "The survey indicates that the national department has not taken its monitoring role seriously and has allowed poor and possibly illegal practices to become entrenched in the system, with the long-term erosion of the ability of the system to get vital materials to the 26 000 sites where they are needed."
This report showed not only that district offices were failing to monitor school book deliveries, but it was also nearly impossible even to contact many schools.
About 50% of the 200 schools selected randomly for the survey "did not have any contact details or had incorrect details and there is a suspicion some do not exist at all", the report found.
Dmitri Holtzman, director of the Equal Education Law Centre, said the monitoring of textbook delivery was a "key component" of Motshekga's job and that one of the ways she should be doing this was "to ensure that there is an effective data collection and verification system".
The unavailability of statistics for access to textbooks at secondary schools "is a key systemic problem that affects the ability of the basic education department and the minister to monitor textbook delivery at a provincial level", he said.
The independent report on textbook deliveries in Limpopo, compiled by former higher education director general Mary Metcalfe and released last month, recommended that better systems of monitoring textbook delivery be instituted.
"Departments must maintain adequate capacity to monitor the service provider," Metcalfe's report said.
"The notion of requesting a supplier to provide a report on performance is not an adequate or acceptable form of monitoring and evaluating a supplier's performance."
The report suggested that the entire procurement of learning materials needed to be "documented and approved by the department for effective monitoring" and all officials, including service providers, should undergo "extensive training" to understand the procurement process.
The basic education department said the sample of 500 schools in last year's report on workbooks "was not representative".
"This was not an official survey but one of convenience to obtain information on workbook utility. Those findings that pertained to the content or to enhancing the books were incorporated in the next editions of the workbooks," said spokesperson Terence Khala.
The department did not answer the M&G's questions on the other reports nor on what these reports suggested about long-standing problems with official monitoring systems regarding schoolbooks.
For more on the education crisis read our special report at mg.co.za/curriculum