/ 23 October 2014

Learning to live in a material world

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

The department of basic education’s draft new policy on teaching and learning materials is a welcome initiative – but it could and should go much further.

The Draft National Policy for the Provision and Management of Learning and Teaching Support Material (LTSM) refers to norms and standards to “honour” the government’s obligations to give effect to the right to basic education. This suggests that the draft policy is a precursor to norms and standards for these materials, such as we at last have for school infrastructure.

The current policy and legislative developments, once finalised, have the potential to improve systems for procurement and delivery of learning and teaching materials, and so address the chronic underprovisioning of such tools that has plagued the majority of pupils for decades.

The report of the South African Human Rights Commission on its investigative hearing into the delivery of classroom materials, released in March, quoted a 2007 study by the Southern African and East Africa Consortium for Monitoring and Educational Quality. This found that the average grade six pupil was in a school where only 45% of pupils had reading books and 36.4% had maths textbooks.

The commission also quoted studies noting that where appropriate textbooks are not provided, “systemic inequalities and social exclusion may actually be perpetuated”, whereas the provision of appropriate textbooks has the countereffect of dramatically improving educational outcomes.

The 2012 textbook crisis case successfully challenged the government’s nondelivery of textbooks to pupils in Limpopo. The judgment found that textbooks are “an essential component of the right to basic education”.

In 2014 this judgment was re-affirmed in another case dealing with nondelivery of textbooks in Limpopo. The court in this case stated: “If there is one [pupil] who is not provided with textbooks, her right has been infringed. It is of no moment at this level of enquiry that all other [pupils] have been given their books. ”

Systemic concerns
The 2012 case resulted in three separate investigations into the causes of the nondelivery of textbooks – respectively producing the Mary Metcalfe commission report, the presidential task team report and the rights commission’s report. Many of the recommendations in these reports sought to address systemic concerns impeding procurement and delivery of classroom materials.

In particular, the presidential task team report of July 2012 re-commended that the basic education department develop a national policy for the standardisation for the procurement and distribution of these materials.

It elaborated by saying that this policy must develop an operation plan for the procurement and delivery of these materials.

The new draft policy broadly defines LTSMs to include stationery and supplies, learning materials, teaching aids and science, technology, maths and biology apparatus.

The overriding goal of the draft policy appears to be the principle of ensuring every child has a textbook in every subject in each grade.

This is confirmed by a recent resolution of the Council of Education Ministers in a media statement the national department released last month.

The draft policy draws a distinction between “core LTSMs” essential to teaching the entire curriculum of a subject for a grade, and “supplementary LTSMs”, used to “enhance a specific part of the curriculum”.

Core LTSMs includes a textbook, a reader or novel, depending on the grade, and a workbook (an activity book designed to cover the curriculum) and teacher guides. Supplementary LTSMs include atlases, dictionaries, subject-specific apparatus and electronic and technical equipment.

Comprehensive access
The draft policy seeks to achieve “comprehensive access to core material” through the following four mechanisms:

•?A process for developing a national catalogue for commercially produced core LTSMs.

•?A two-tiered procurement model for LTSMs. This includes a centralised procurement model managed by provincial education departments or the national department for core LTSMs, and a decentralised or school-level procurement model for supplementary LTSMs.

The centralised model requires the formation of provincial LTSM committees to procure and distribute materials in the province. Provinces must have a plan that includes the allocation of budgets for textbook procurement.

The decentralised model requires the formation of school LTSM committee and the development of plans by these committees.

The draft policy then establishes processes for requisitioning, ordering and receiving by schools.

•?A school-based retention and retrieval system to facilitate a life span for classroom materials of more than five years. The draft policy establishes tight processes for the issuing and retrieval of textbooks and for recording textbook inventory.

•?A bottom-up approach to the monitoring of procurement to inform policy and planning for LTSMs.

Fundamental gaps
Although this standardised national system is a step in the right direction, a reading of the textbook judgments and the reports into nondelivery suggests that there remain fundamental gaps that need to be addressed to achieve not just “comprehensive” but also “universal access” to core materials.

Adopting a similar stance to other national education policy, the LTSM draft policy refers to its constitutional obligation for this provisioning as being “to progressively provide resources to safeguard the right”.

This is a misinterpretation, and an understatement, of the extent of the government’s constitutional obligations.

The effect of this is to reduce the principle that every child has a textbook in every subject to an aspirational goal rather than an obligation. This is also contrary to the approach of our courts in the textbook judgments.

Moreover, although the draft policy establishes processes for individual schools to record the delivery of textbooks and, although it develops an elaborate system to ensure such schools take responsibility for retaining and retrieving textbooks, insufficient attention has been directed at ensuring accountability within the other tiers of the schooling system to address system failures.

The 2012 textbook crisis was riddled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies about the government’s part in the state of textbook delivery. Reports from the basic education department did not accord with the actual state of delivery in schools.

Double-checking for accuracy
The Metcalfe report therefore recommended that there be a “further audit of the delivery process, and government reports should be double-checked for accuracy and completeness”.

Similarly, the rights commission recommended that “a national independent audit be undertaken to determine precisely where lapses in service delivery lie”. The draft policy does not address such concerns. Both the commission and the Metcalfe reports also recommended improved communications infrastructure. If schools are without phones or faxes – a problem particularly prevalent in rural areas – reporting issues such as textbook shortages becomes difficult. The draft policy is silent on this problem.

The Metcalfe report noted that the absence of a database of schools in Limpopo severely impeded the delivery of textbooks.

Yet the draft policy provides little guidance on the necessity for provincial education departments to establish and maintain up-to-date accurate databases containing information on the number of schools, the contact details of schools, and the number of pupils at those schools.

Finally, a key recommendation in the Metcalfe report was for all officials involved in procurement processes to undergo training.

Although the textbook cases dealt with mismanagement in textbook procurement processes and insufficient budgeting for textbooks, the draft report is silent on any training for the procurement committees.

The policy objective that every child has a textbook in every subject is laudable.

Its achievability, however, will require that all the systemic concerns that have been identified regarding LTSM procurement and delivery be addressed in the draft policy. It also requires that the government has a proper understanding of its rights obligations.

Faranaaz Veriava is a human rights lawyer, based part time at Section27. She writes a monthly column in these pages on the right to basic education. This column draws on Section27’s submission to the basic education department on its gazetted Draft National Policy for the Provision and Management of Learning and Teaching Support Material