Textbooks show bias, report finds

School textbooks used by South African pupils contain an over-representation of white people, men and nuclear families and are often silent on same-sex families, disability and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community, a report by the department of basic education has revealed.

The report was the work of the interministerial task team appointed by the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, in 2016 to look into the content and visuals in textbooks for racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Motshekga appointed the task team following a furore over a grade 10 life orientation textbook that blamed a girl for her rape.

The textbook contained a story about a girl, Angie, who went to a party with friends, got drunk, and was pushed and locked into a room where a stranger raped her. She felt she could not report the rape to her parents because she did not ask for permission to go to the party.

One of the questions about this scenario was: “List two ways in which Angie’s behaviour led to sexual intercourse.”

At the time the department said that the question raised serious misconceptions and stereotypes about rape and the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, in that the victim might have played a role that led to her being raped.

The Textbook Evaluation Report reported on a sample of 48 textbooks out of the 630 currently in use.

It found that white people are the most frequently represented race in text across all subjects. White people are also shown having more professional roles compared to blacks, while coloureds have working-class roles.

Across all subjects, men are represented more than women. For example, in social sciences or history books, male representation in text makes up 68%. The disjunction extends to visual representations.

The report also found that, across all subjects, visually and in text, the nuclear family is most frequently featured. While single-parent families are occasionally represented, there is no mention of child-headed families in the textbooks that were evaluated.

Heterosexual people are the most represented group in all subjects. “Sexuality was not often identified. References to LGBTIQ representation were hardly ever made in any of the textbooks,” reads the report.

Disability is largely absent in textbooks and mostly able-bodied people are represented.

“Disability is not represented often in the textbooks analysed. Isolated instances were identified. However, for the most part these were too insignificant to be taken up in proportions,” reads the report.

The task team recommended that textbooks be more inclusive and reflect the diversity in society. This meant including non-nuclear families, different types of sexual orientation and more people with disabilities and addressing mental health issues.

The team evaluated textbooks that are being used at the exit grades of the four phases in the South African schooling system. The exit grades are three, six, nine and 12 at the ends of the foundation phase, intermediate phase, senior phase and further education and training phases, respectively. The team focused on mathematics and mathematics literacy, English first additional language, Afrikaans first additional language, isiZulu home language, life orientation, social sciences and history, and analysed workbooks for grades three, six and nine.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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