Single textbook option slammed

Learning and teaching will be severely damaged, many publishing companies will close and thousands of jobs will be lost if the government implements its proposal to remove any choice in which textbooks schools use.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga published the policy proposal in the September 4 Government Gazette and invited public comment on it. The proposal entails the government deciding on “one book per subject, per grade, per language”.

The Mail & Guardian has seen several submissions to the department that shoot down the proposal in the strongest terms.

In his submission, Rob Siebörger, deputy director of the University of Cape Town’s school of education, wrote: “I believe that one book per subject per grade is a very retrograde step.”

He explained: “The availability of multiple copies of textbooks provides teachers with the opportunity to choose the language level and approach that they feel is most appropriate to their school/classes.”

The Publishers’ Association of South Africa’s submission warned that the proposed policy would result in the publishing industry being “dominated by a few large publishers, and put out of business many of the smaller suppliers”.

Not more rational
The association said it did not believe the proposed policy “is a more rational and cost-effective approach”.

“A competitive publishing environment drives quality up and prices down. A single option catalogue will create monopolies, which ultimately are not cost-effective.”

A publisher, who asked not to be named, said: “We fear that, if it is implemented as suggested, [the proposal] will lead to thousands of job losses, will result in many publishing companies closing down and that it will have a negative impact on publishing, book development and education.”

Last year the government spent about R2.5-billion on textbooks.

If adopted, the proposal would radically change the current system, whereby publishers submit textbooks to the national department. In a lengthy process, the department then settles on an approved final list from which provinces and schools choose which books best suit them.

The gazetted proposal appears to follow one of the ANC’s resolutions taken at its 2012 Mangaung national conference. In addition to “adopt[ing] a centralised approach in the procurement of” textbooks, stationery and other teaching materials, the ANC resolved to provide “uniform and standardised textbooks … to all learners across the system”.

Intellectual property
The government should also “expand the capacity to print textbooks and workbooks and own their intellectual property”, the resolution stated.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), the ANC’s largest ally in the education sector, also rejects the uniform textbook policy. The union’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, would not confirm whether Sadtu had made a formal submission to the department, but he told the M&G that “one textbook per grade is a problem”.

Teachers participate in selecting textbooks with the awareness that they “need a variety of knowledge sources” for teaching, he said. “[The department] is stereotyping teachers. We’ve always said you need to afford teachers academic freedom.”

The move would also hit poor schools the hardest, Maluleke said. “It would mean a school would have to source from its budget [to buy extra textbooks]. The no-fee schools [about 60% of all schools] will not have the money.”

In its submission to the department, the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (SAOU) cast doubt on the government’s ability to deliver.

It is “concerned about delays in terms of orders and delivery, over which schools will no longer have control, and the detrimental effect [that] late or no deliveries, or inaccurate deliveries, will have on learning and teaching”.

Cheapness over quality
A teacher in Venda in Limpopo warned that the “danger” of leaving the selection of textbooks to the government was that bureaucrats favoured cheapness over quality. In getting itself out of the province’s 2012 textbook crisis, the government opted for cheaper supplies (“Limpopo asks publishers to supply cheapest textbooks”, M&G, July 27 2012).

To this day “we don’t have the opportunity to choose in Limpopo”, said the teacher.

“One textbook per grade could be good because the examination would be set based on it,” she said. “But the question is: Who is going to choose the textbook? Those people sit in their offices listening to music. They’re not in the classroom but they choose textbooks for us.

“If a book is a bit expensive, the chances are that it’s thoroughly researched by the authors. Those [authors] who know they are going to get peanuts won’t put in much effort.”

The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) take issues with the proposal’s requirement that schools classified as section 21 would no longer be allowed to buy directly from publishers. These are schools the South African Schools Act allows to manage all their allocated funds.

Suzaan Mellet, the federation’s research and policy officer, wrote in her submission that the draft policy “violates the rule of law”.

“In light of … the absolute illegality and unlawfulness of the proposed policy, Fedsas requests the department to withdraw the draft policy.”

The public comment period closed this week. But SAOU president Chris Klopper told the M&G the union “intends to launch a petition against the principle of the same textbook per learner per subject”.

Its draft petition “implores the minister to consider other options to improve access to textbooks and reduce costs. We need a system that will allow a varied range of quality textbooks for our schools.”

By the time of going to press, the basic education department had not responded to questions emailed to them on Tuesday.

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