/ 28 November 2014

No time to make decent textbooks

Pressure: Publishers have thrown the book at the government for the three months it has given them to produce textbooks
Pressure: Publishers have thrown the book at the government for the three months it has given them to produce textbooks

New textbooks the government will distribute to public schools in 2016 are almost certain to be lack academic quality, publishers have warned.

This is because Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s office has insisted on giving publishers just three months to produce the books.

For a process that usually takes a year, the department told publishing groups last month they had until January 16 to submit their manuscripts to compete for selection.

The department’s invitation to publishers, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, reads: “The closing time for submissions will be strictly adhered to. Late submissions will not be accepted and will not be screened or considered for inclusion in the national catalogue.”

The Publishers’ Association of South Africa subsequently made a submission to the department, highlighting its members’ concerns about the “short timeframe”.

The association warned of the consequences of preparing textbooks within a quarter of a year.

“A period of three months is certainly not enough time to produce quality materials, especially keeping in mind that during December all printers are closed and freelance writers, translators and editors are on leave,” it said.

“The quality of the products submitted is directly affected by the amount of time publishers have to prepare the materials. The longer we have, the better.”

Plea ‘fell on deaf ears’
Mpuka Radinku, the association’s executive director, told the M&G this week their plea “fell on deaf ears”.

“They didn’t address most of the questions,” he said, and the three-month deadline “still stands”.

Radinku said “what was really disturbing” was that the department had known for more than a year that new textbooks were required to complement the new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement curriculum.

“We’ve always pleaded with the department to give us enough time to be able to produce the best books for children. But when they finally implement they give us the worst and shortest time.

“It takes time to produce good-quality books,” Radinku said.

“Even in September [this year] we said to them, ‘Give us time so that we can research and develop the best books.’”

These are books for grades 10 to 12, as well as grade R, and are due to be delivered to schools after June next year for their use in 2016.

The association’s letter said grade R materials, “which are the foundation of all learning in the 12 years of schooling to follow”, stand particular risk of poor quality.

Set up for failure
The African Publishers’ Association told the M&G this week that it had opted to go along with the department’s mandate, “which is taking books to schools”.

“The period obviously caught us by surprise; we were slightly off-guard. But we are in the process of developing these materials in line with what the department wants.

“Time will determine quality. But I wouldn’t say [in this instance] it would absolutely kill quality because there might be someone who’s got more resources and who can produce,” said Eddy Phaswana, the association’s treasurer.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear her company could be targeted, a publisher belonging to the Publishers’ Association of South Africa said they were being set up for failure.

She said publishers had in effect been given “six weeks to write, proof, edit, illustrate and produce” the books.

“This is a process that needs a year. Even six months can help, but not six weeks. It is not enough time to produce a book. It makes it impossible to complete and to enrich that publication.”

She said she suspected the bidding process was a façade and the department was advertising “just to make it formal. This is for publishers who’ve had specifications [from the department] for a long time and done the work already.”

Another publisher urged academics “to weigh in”.

“They are ending up with having to deal with students entering tertiary education ill-prepared to handle any independent research,” the publisher said.

Elijah Mhlanga, the department’s spokesperson, declined to respond to questions the M&G had sent him.    

“We are not going to engage the Publishers’ Association of South Africa through the media. Instead we will use the appropriate platforms to address any issues they might have,” he said. – Mail & Guardian