Whose head should roll?

The grief that has been heaped on Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga from all quarters seems to be justified on the surface. The facts seem clear. Eight months into the year, pupils across the country, but most scandalously in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, are sitting with the revised curriculum and no textbooks to back up these changes.

Given the teacher dependency on textbooks, this is tragic and can only have an impact on the learning of these pupils. Although this situation should be condemned and heads should roll, let us make sure the right heads are rolling.

Three points are relevant to this situation and may muddy the water a bit.

First, it is assumed by both the press and the public who want a scapegoat for this mess that the national minister is all-powerful. The minister was praised for putting both the Limpopo and Eastern Cape education departments under national control, described as putting them under section 100(i)b from the relevant article in the Constitution. It was assumed that it would be a panacea for all the provinces' education problems.

But this could never be the case because basic education is a so-called schedule four department. This means that the national and provincial departments have concurrent powers. When the minister puts a provincial education department under section 100, she can send in her own team, but it has to work with the provincial minister, the head of department and departmental officials. Not surprisingly, the office-holders tend to block the national department's intervention for both political and bureaucratic reasons.

Because section 100 includes no detailed rules of engagement and the minister cannot unilaterally remove the offending officials, the intervention lacks teeth. This means the minister is largely correct when she says that even if she had known there was going to be a textbook crisis, there was little she could do to avert it.

Second, the minister found EduSolutions already entrenched as the provider of first choice in the Limpopo provincial education department. She correctly questioned its contract and eventually blocked it.

However, this problem has been long in the making. An internal education department report on the provision of learning and teaching materials to schools across the country was presented to the previous minister, Naledi Pandor, in March 2007. This report faulted some providers for extorting money from schools through dodgy contracts with a number of provinces that involved hugely inflated prices for the items schools needed to function. For instance, a map cost schools R1 000; a R399 drill R2 000 and a R70 technology set more than 10 times that amount.

This situation was compounded by the consistent non-delivery of up to 10% of all books and stationery ordered and the partial delivery of orders to many schools. Because of poor procurement and tracking processes, they often failed to realise they had been short-changed.

Finally, there was considerable evidence of providers delivering goods that the sample schools had no use for, such as materials for early childhood development to secondary schools, musical instruments to schools with no music department and technology equipment to schools that lacked a use for them. Schools that tried to access their learning materials elsewhere were often punished by departments by having their allocated funds withdrawn or reduced by the amount of the goods they were rejecting from the contracted provider.

Third, the issue of books being dumped on rubbish heaps has been placed at the minister's door. This is a ticking time bomb in the education system. An investigation undertaken in the 1990s recognised that a significant percentage of books and stationery sent to schools never reached those schools. The report intimated that there might well be government officials who made money out of pulping new books. Although there may be no direct evidence for this, the recent Metcalfe report indicates that clearly something funny is going on and it needs to be investigated fully.

So, although the minister must bear some responsibility for this situation and certainly she will bear the main political consequences, the whole mess is too complex to be solved by removing the minister. What is needed, I suggest, is for three changes to be made immediately:

  • The status of and powers related to a schedule four department putting a provincial department under section 100(i)b needs to be clarified and the rules of engagement laid down at national government level. This must allow for the minister of the national schedule four department to take real control of the provincial department when a section 100 is evoked.
  • There needs to be a rethink of how schools are provided with learning and teaching support materials. These are critical to the smooth running of the education system and for years it has been a happy hunting ground for sharks. This has to stop and a national system, as intimated by the national department, must be introduced. It cannot, however, be an excuse for centralising a corrupt procurement system so that national officials get a cut. What is needed is a clean, above-board, national process that delivers materials at the lowest possible price to the schools on time every year. It is something that our neighbouring states seem to manage fine, so we should too. Anything else will betray our children.
  • There needs to be a national or provincial system for retrieving books at the end of each school year. The companies supplying books benefit from the fact that many schools do not bother to collect books from pupils at the end of the year, or have such poor record-keeping that they cannot trace which learner was issued with which text book. A retrieval system is easy to implement, costs no money and would save the government millions every year.

This would be a more useful response to the crisis than calling for the blood of the minister.

Martin Prew is the director of the Centre for Education Policy ­Development


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