South Africa’s education system is widely accepted to be in crisis. An alarming number of its children are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Many schools lack equipment, infrastructure and even basic necessities like furniture.
In this context, could improving access to textbooks make any real difference?
The answer is yes. Textbooks matter. That’s why their absence from one South African province’s classrooms made headlines in 2012. The country’s Department of Basic Education failed to deliver textbooks to learners in the Limpopo province that year.
This led to a court battle between the organisation I work for, Section27 – a public interest law centre focusing on health and education rights – and the government.
The court found in Section27’s favour, with the judge ordering that the department urgently deliver textbooks to Limpopo’s schools. That wasn’t the end of the matter. In 2014 Section27 launched a new application on behalf our clients – an organisation called Basic Education for All and a number of Limpopo schools – because not all the province’s schools had received the textbooks they needed that year.
In May 2014, judge Neil Tuchten of the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the department had violated children’s rights to a basic education. Tuchten ordered the department to provide a textbook to every learner for every subject by the start of every academic year. The department appealed this ruling, a matter now due before the Supreme Court of Appeal.
Tuchten in his judgment said:
Textbooks have been part of the stock in trade of the educator for centuries. There is something special about a book. It has a very long life, far longer than that of the individual reader. It is a low tech (nology) device. It is accessible to anyone who can read the language in which it has been written. During the hours of daylight it can be read (accessed) without any other supporting technology at all. It needs no maintenance except the occasional strip of adhesive tape.
Some of South Africa’s foremost education researchers agree. They have found a positive correlation between access to textbooks and learners’ results. Here’s why, in a country as unequal as South Africa, textbooks matter so much.
South Africa’s poor educational outcomes
Education researchers are reluctant to pinpoint a single cause for a child’s poor performance at school. But many agree that having access to textbooks is an important contributor to improved performance.
A transnational study involving 15 countries in Africa – among them South Africa, Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Malawi and Uganda – assigned maths and reading tests to Grade 6 learners (who are on average 12-years-old) and to their teachers.
In an analysis of the results, Stellenbosch University economist Nic Spaull found that 27% of South Africa’s Grade 6 learners were functionally illiterate and 40% functionally innumerate. Figures differed substantially across South Africa’s nine provinces. Limpopo, centre of the textbook crisis and court cases, recorded the lowest reading test results: 49% of the province’s Grade 6 learners were deemed to be functionally illiterate.
Spaull’s research also measured the impact of access to textbooks on educational performance. He found that learners with their own reading textbooks, or who share with not more than one student, “perform significantly better” than those who have to share textbooks with more than one other classmate.
Teacher content knowledge
In the Limpopo textbook case, the Department of Basic Education argued that teachers can fulfil the function of textbooks. But current research suggests otherwise. In many cases, teachers lack content knowledge in the subjects they are teaching.
Data from the pan-African study shows that only 32% of South African teachers had the required levels of content knowledge.
The function of a textbook is essentially to guide the teaching and learning of the curriculum in a particular subject. Against the backdrop of poor teacher context knowledge, textbooks play a fundamental role in supplementing teachers’ knowledge deficits.
Education researchers have also explored the importance of what’s called “cultural capital”. This relates to family literacy and practices in homes and communities that can help children prepare for school. It also includes exposure and access to books and other printed materials.
But South Africa is not a reading society: the country’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has said that only 14% of South Africans are active book readers and a mere 5% of parents read to their children.
Where learners do not have access to books in their own homes textbooks can potentially remedy this “cultural” deficit.
There is no single “magic bullet” that will solve South Africa’s educational problems. But there is clear evidence that access to textbooks is an important part of the solution. Textbooks do matter. They play a crucial part in overcoming some of the broader structural deficits to teaching and learning.