It’s rare that a national industry is confronted with a single threat to its future. That just happened to South African publishing. A few days ago, the South African Department of Basic Education released a policy document, for public comment, that explains how the DBE would like to handle textbooks going forward. (If you’re in publishing, read it, here’s the PDF. Instructions for official public responses here.)
The document has big, important ideals, and contains many smart ideas. The emphasis is on making sure every child has textbooks, and no one can fault that. There are many ways to help make that happen: the department must make its textbook money go further, the distribution of textbooks must be simpler, and schools must try to reuse all of their textbooks from year to year. The document addresses these issues and more. The issues have inherent challenges and complexities, and it’s clear the authors have thought about them.
But the document contains one, huge, glaring misadventure: the DBE wants to buy a single textbook in each subject for the whole country. For example, every grade 10 child in the country will use exactly the same maths textbook. The same history textbook. The same life-orientation textbook. Whether they’re at a high-end school in suburban Joburg or a rural school in the Northern Cape.
The theory is that, this way, the DBE will find economies of scale that will reduce the cost of textbooks and their distribution, and that this will help them achieve universal textbook coverage.
It’s very difficult to respond to this theory seriously, because it’s flawed to the point of absurdity. Even if the DBE did save money this way, it wouldn’t save much, and the damage done would be far more costly in the long term:
- Teachers would no longer choose the textbooks they want to use. They’d be less interested in a textbook prescribed for them centrally, and wouldn’t be able to pick a textbook that suits their particular class.
- Right now, we have a few dozen educational publishers, dominated by about five big ones (Pearson, Oxford, Macmillan, Via Africa, Cambridge). Within two or three years, publishers who don’t get to sell their textbooks would go out of business. Publishers I’ve spoken to reckon there would be space for three or four publishers, and only if they have owners with deep pockets to help them weather years with no government sales.
- Private schools, which are growing rapidly, would continue to buy whatever textbooks they choose. They’d benefit from choice and diversity, and have the ear of those publishers that survive. This would further increase the gap between the quality and perceived quality of state and private schools. Gaps like that create self-reinforcing vicious cycles.
- Given the make-or-break high stakes involved, the process for choosing only one textbook would be even more prone to corruption than the current system. In the current system, the DBE chooses eight books per subject, a number that is already the result of a massive concession made by the publishing industry a couple of years ago. Before that, any number of textbooks might have been approved for sales to schools.
- We’re only beginning to figure out how best to create and distribute digital textbooks. To evolve great systems, we need a diverse environment, a constant churn of solutions adapt-or-dying, funded by risk-taking angel investors. A one-textbook policy would kill that process in an instant and set digital textbooks back years.
- Promising initiatives to create open textbooks (like Siyavula’s) could all but disappear. Open textbooks rely on philanthropic sponsors to cover their development costs, and sponsors would be wary of funding textbooks that might never be used in state schools.
No doubt there will be much public comment on these issues. Signs are ominous that it might not make much difference: a senior DBE leader told a group of publishers recently that their position on procurement (which includes buying one textbook per subject) is very unlikely to change. We could have guessed that: weeks before the proposed policy was made public, the Minister had already announced it in her budget speech as given:
2014/15 has been targeted as the year by which the sector will be moving towards one textbook, per learner, per subject.
In South Africa, the vast majority of publishing revenue comes from the government purchase of textbooks. This revenue cross-subsidises the less lucrative publishing of fiction, children’s books, and reference books like dictionaries and atlases. As I’ve mentioned, it funds much of the experimenting around digital textbooks and online learning. And educational publishing – despite many weaknesses in this regard – supplies most of our country’s book-publishing skills. As a country we’ll pay a terrible price if our educational publishing sector shrinks.
That said, the DBE is not the root of the problem. They are simply reaching for the biggest hammer they can find to solve a long-standing problem: the gross under-supply of textbooks to poor students, and the perception that books in South Africa are too expensive and exclusive. Even if it’s the wrong hammer on the wrong nail, as the publishing industry we have to take a long, hard look at the part we’ve played getting to this point.
The spectre of state publishing and a single-textbook system has been around for many years – certainly for the twenty years I’ve worked in publishing – and always in response to these same basic problems. And yet publishing companies have not changed anything substantial about their publishing models or processes in those twenty years. As educational publishers, we’ve repeatedly fallen back on our unshakable belief that we’re already producing the best possible books for the lowest possible price. And each time that the state has threatened to force our hand, we’ve persuaded them to let us keep doing things the same way. There have been tweaks to the system, but the basic model has never changed. What if we’ve been wrong the whole time?
So perhaps the chicken has finally roosted. We’ve scraped through our tests, but now it’s exam time and we have just hours to prove ourselves. Can we find different ways to do things, or do we tell our editors, writers, designers, marketers and salespeople to find other jobs? Whatever happens, we have a lot of honest, open talking to do.