17/01/2011 Pupils of Phathudi Secondary School in Atteridgeville are ready and excited to get back to school since they have recieved their text books a day before they they open. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Kate McCallum

A recent proposal by the Department of Basic Education to do away with the national catalogue of eight books per subject per grade, and to approve only one book, is likely to damage South Africa’s already poor educational outcomes further.

The draft National Policy for the Provisioning and Management of Learning and Teaching Support Materials (LTSM) has two good aspects to it. The first is the intention to achieve universal provision by providing each pupil with a textbook per subject per grade, ie to supply a Minimum School Bag. The second is to ensure that books are kept by schools for five years, to ensure that universal provision is attainable within the limits of the annual budget for LTSM. However, the proposal to remove all choice of books by schools from a national catalogue of eight approved titles and to have only a single approved textbook is a retrogressive step.

One size does not fit all. A single textbook will not meet the widely differing needs of the South African school population. We have first-language pupils and second-language pupils. Some need substantial language support; some don’t. Some schools are well resourced; others aren’t. A book that meets the needs of the top 30 percent of pupils will be inappropriate for the remaining 70 percent; if it is aimed at the lower-performing 50 percent, it will not meet the needs of the higher-performing 50 percent, who will be disadvantaged. Education can’t afford this kind of misalignment and waste of resources.

It’s widely accepted that a multi-text environment is educationally richer, offering different points of view and different content, teaching pupils to discriminate between texts – something that is specified in the history syllabus. Professor Johan Wasserman made the point in a recent article that “in a society like South Africa where deeply conflicting views about the past exist”, it is essential to avoid a “bland agreed-upon official narrative instead”. This is one step away from censorship.

Unlike many other countries, South Africa’s teaching corps is exceptionally diverse in its background, teaching ability, language ability and content knowledge. A single book will not address all these differing needs.

Part of professional development for teachers is assessing material and choosing what is appropriate for their classes’ language level and ability. To remove from teachers the professional decision as to which “tools” to use is to diminish their professional capacity and exclude an important area of skill and growth.

Anyone’s commitment to a chosen course of action is greater if they are involved in the decision-making process as much as possible. Professor Rob Siebörger also makes the point that: “The writing of textbooks … is an important professional activity and it may well be argued that the more textbooks are written for an education system, the better the intellectual health of the system. It means that more teachers are involved, there is greater participation and wider stakeholding.”

While there is a wealth of research linking improved educational outcomes with the supply and effective use of a basic level of LTSM or, preferably, a wide range and plentiful supply of LTSM, there is no research that indicates that having a limited national catalogue or supplying only one book per subject per grade per pupil improves educational outcomes. The few countries which have implemented such a system have, first of all, homogenous pupil populations and teacher cohorts, rather than the extraordinarily diverse range of pupils and teachers that South Africa has.

Secondly, where they have good educational outcomes, this is attributable to other factors such as teacher qualifications; commitment and attitude; the quality of teaching; the time on task; a range of available digital supplementary materials; and parental and community support.

A competitive publishing environment drives quality up and prices down. A single-option catalogue will create monopolies, which ultimately are not cost-effective. The book value chain consists of paper manufacturers, printers, publishers, booksellers, libraries, freelancers (editors, proofreaders, designers, artists, indexers, translators) and authors, for whom the book chain represents skills, income and jobs. Although the book chain consists of academic, general and educational publishers, educational publishers consist of 66 percent (R2.8 billion) of the total turnover of the industry (R4.2bn – which, to put it in context, is merely 7 percent of Pick n Pay’s turnover in 2012). Thus, any significant change to the educational publishing sector – particularly one which drastically reduces its “biodiversity”, such as limiting the national catalogue or moving to a single title per subject per grade per language, will eliminate many publishing businesses and will have a negative ripple effect through the rest of the ecosystem, limiting innovation, creativity, experimentation, risk, ideas and debate.

When the current limited catalogue of eight books per subject per grade was first introduced, it reduced the number of educational publishers from roughly 90 to 30. It is estimated that a move to a single-book approval system will reduce the number of educational publishers to two or three. The damage to the publishing industry and allied industries in terms of jobs and skills lost will be incalculable. This means fewer publishers to compete, innovate and cross-subsidise unprofitable areas such as African literature, and experiment with the digital solutions needed for the future.

Among the first publishers to be eliminated will be the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs) and historically disadvantaged individuals, who will find the barriers to entry have been raised so high in terms of investment and risk, that they will not be able to participate.

It is also obvious that a single-book choice system is a winner-takes-all system, which increases the risk of corruption.

The main reason behind the proposal is the erroneous idea that it will save costs. The national funding norm stipulated by the department is that the ratio of personnel to non-personnel funding should reflect an 80:20 split (the comparable European figures were 77:23 for 2007), but the actual split in South Africa in 2013/14 was 86:14. In other words, we’re overspending on staff: teachers and national and provincial education department staff. In the recent Basic Education Budget Vote Speech, it was announced that the education budget for 2014/15 would be R254bn. A mere 2 percent (R5.097bn) will be spent on workbooks, textbooks and stationery. The figure ought to be at least 8 percent to ensure that every school has a library; a science laboratory; textbooks; classroom sets of readers; language and maths games; software and digital content from Grades R to 12.

The department is pulling on the wrong levers to manage its budget. Firstly, it is personnel costs which need to be reduced, so that there is more funding for capital expenditure on infrastructure (school buildings, desks, chairs) and equipment (books, etc). Secondly, it erroneously assumes that approving only one textbook would reduce the cost of supplying textbooks. Longer print runs are indeed cheaper than short print runs – but only up to a point. A paper by the UK Department for International Development on the provision of LTSM points out that the cost-savings plateau is at around print runs of 35 000 to 50 000 copies. Above this the cost benefit is marginal.

“Only small-population countries are likely to derive significant cost benefits from single-monopoly textbook policies designed to reduce costs. Most countries have sufficient school enrolments to provide a choice of alternative competing textbooks at economic prices,” the UK department says.

If cost-savings need to be achieved, there are other ways to do so which don’t damage educational outcomes. My calculations are that of the items in the Minimum School Bag listed by the department (which, incidentally, does not include dictionaries and atlases, or material for Grade R), textbooks and stationery would cost R15.997bn if all items were replaced each year.

If books and stationery items such as scissors, rulers and calculators are kept by schools for five years, the annual cost falls to R4.852bn, which is within the department’s small budget of R5.097bn.

Retention of books is the single biggest cost-saving in an LTSM budget, and yields the greatest savings of all. Making books last five years saves 80 percent of the cost.

The next biggest cost-saving is VAT, which is 14 percent of the cost of books. Most countries have a zero VAT rate or a reduced rate on books.

The department’s practice of supplying state-published disposable workbooks in which children write currently costs 17 percent of the LTSM budget (R896.7 million in 2014/15). It would be halve the cost to issue, say, maths textbooks (kept for five years) with disposable exercise books to write in – saving 8.5 percent of budget.

Requiring books to be published in black and white instead of colour would save roughly 3 percent.

Another significant area of cost-saving is having fewer subjects in the curriculum, which means fewer books and less stationery needs to be supplied – and teaching time can focus in greater depth on fewer subjects. Frequent changes of curriculum and accelerated implementation are also expensive. The shortfall of textbooks in provincial budget allocations that has been experienced in recent years is more a result of the frequent changes of curriculum and the accelerated pace of curriculum reform than the price of textbooks.

Where a new curriculum for two to four grades is implemented each year to reform the total curriculum over three years, it places considerable strain on provincial textbook budgets, since a new book has to be bought for each child in the grades implementing the new curriculum.

From a budgetary point of view, an eight-year curriculum reform cycle would be more manageable and affordable.

In addition, the logistics of managing a four-grade submission and provisioning are considerably more complex and onerous than the logistics of managing a two-grade submission and provisioning.

Finally, to dispel a popular myth: it is clear that digital textbooks will increasingly form an important resource in the classroom, but overall they will not necessarily be cheaper to the user – the costs simply move elsewhere in the eco-system.

In the current pricing model, the publisher pays all costs and recovers them through the price paid by the user. In the digital pricing model, the publisher pays for development, writing and production costs, but the user pays the costs of hardware, software and internet access.

Similarly, in Open Educational Resources, the creator or donor covers the costs of development, writing and production, and the long-term sustainability of the material is dependent on the altruism of the creator. Open Educational Resources are an important part of the resources, but, as the UK Department for International Development paper points out, the principles of a system of provisioning are that it should be affordable, sustainable and predictable.

Is the benefit of ostensible cost-savings through a single-choice approval system worth the cost of damage to educational outcomes? I think not.

l McCallum is a former managing director of Oxford University Press and chairwoman of the Publishers’ Association. She currently runs her own publishing consultancy.