Unpacking SA’s education crisis – part oneTuesday, 28/08/2012 - 14:56
The textbook crisis has been given saturation coverage in the media – but after all the reportage, do we really understand the core issues? Over the next few weeks Corruption Watch will bring you a six-part series that will offer exclusive and insightful analysis on the fiasco, explain its significance in the broader picture of the country’s education system and tell you, the public, exactly why you should care and support action on this.
During the series we will carefully examine all evidence relating to education department tenders, explain which agencies are probing the issue and the progress they are making, profile EduSolutions and its connectedness with government, as well as tell you what lessons can be learned from Limpopo’s undoing.
Media professionals are free to use all copy and photographs from the series on condition Corruption Watch is credited as the source.
When Limpopo failed to deliver textbooks to its schools at the beginning of this year it triggered a national outcry and mobilised public sentiment like no other education delivery failure had ever done before.
“It became a metaphor for how government conducts its business,” said advisor to the Department of Basic Education Linda Chisholm recently, and forced intervention at presidency level.
There were some unique factors that led to such public outrage: firstly, the sheer scale of non-delivery by a completely broke province; secondly, a damning report by then Limpopo education administrator Anis Karodia that raised questions about overspending and mismanagement; and finally, seemingly delayed reaction by national government.
According to expert opinion, it was not the lack of funding that led to non-delivery, but rather the mismanagement of existing funds.
The sad fact is that by the time national treasury intervened to staunch the meltdown, it was too late. In late 2011 the Limpopo education department was put under administration with four other provincial departments, but by March 2012 it was already R2-billion in the red.
In this article Corruption Watch speaks to educational experts and civil society groups for more insight on the Limpopo disaster and how this is playing out to a greater or lesser extent in other provinces as well, notably the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.
These sources reveal that gross lack of oversight and poor management have led to less spending on vital school feeding schemes, infrastructure, transport, and textbooks.
Rights group Section27, in a statement explaining its intervention, argues that the Limpopo crisis was the result of a “collective failure” by many organisations – civic and labour, school governing bodies, government and the ANC.
A ticking time-bomb
Section27 spokesperson Mark Heywood said: “We are hoping that Limpopo will serve as a tipping point to mobilise some real efforts to address problems that have been developing in education for some years, and that civil society can sustain the momentum long enough to ensure that some real changes are made.”
“For South Africa to be successful and safe, we need to have a functional school system, or we will have no skills to compete and a semi-educated, semi-literate generation of young people living in temporary settlements.
“It is not sustainable and it has to blow up at some point,” he said.
The bigger picture
Limpopo helped shine a light on long-standing problems in other provincial education departments which had, according to Ann Skelton of the Centre for Child Law, “resulted in systems that were close to collapse.” Systemic corruption, late delivery and a lack of communication included.
Zeenat Sujee of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies believes the situation has deteriorated over the last two to three years, aided perhaps by a number of curriculum changes, which have served as a distraction.
Another aggravating factor is that provinces get their own budgets and appoint their own MECs, which mean they have the most amount of control over money allocated. Delivery and procurement have also been left to the provinces, which all have different systems in place – this was confirmed at a conference earlier in August by advisor to the basic education ministry Linda Chisholm.
But in the cases of the Eastern Cape and Limpopo education departments, which have both been placed under administration, the basic education ministry can be held accountable as the minister herself is now directly in charge.
In fact, the problems identified in Limpopo – mismanagement and corruption – were raised over a decade ago in former education minister Kader Asmals’ 2000 Curriculum Review.
In 2009 another review revealed that vetting and procurement differed across provinces, and inter-provincial coordination structures existed, but were not operating properly.
Sarah Sephton of the Legal Resources Centre recounts a case of a district official in the Eastern Cape who reported in June that textbooks had not been received. “Communication is a serious problem. It was the first time the national department had heard of these problems and it was half-way through the year.”
The Free State and KwaZulu-Natal are also being highlighted by experts as areas of concern.
Outsourcing the distribution and procurement of textbooks and other supplies has led to more complications, with Sephton and Skelton adding that stationery, desk and chairs supplies are also problematic.
Civil society groups believe that highly inexperienced, overtaxed officials at provincial and national level have meant that process-monitoring is not happening in some provinces.
There are 23 steps to be followed to get learner teacher supply materials to schools, so it’s not surprising that corners are being cut.
Big corruption risk with centralisation
Provinces like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo left it to schools to order the textbooks they needed, but Sephton says that centralising procurement, with more control at national level, is not the answer either.
“There are indications from a report in Kenya that greater centralisation of procurement, where only a few people have decision-making power, leads to greater corruption.”
In the case of Limpopo, Karodia found that a single supplier, EduSolutions, had complete control of the procurement and delivery system after the dismantling of the province’s book unit. This meant that before new service providers could be appointed, the education department had to negotiate for EduSolutions to release the database and records of school orders.
Worse still, Heywood points out, there is no-one for principals to complain to when textbooks are not received, because not a single person in the department knew what was supposed to be delivered.
“EduSolutions provided their own delivery report in Limpopo, which does not appear to have been verified, and principals found the district departments were difficult to complain to,” he said.
This also appears to have been a problem in the Eastern Cape, although another company there delivers and procures textbooks.
Heywood said the top-up of books in Limpopo – that is the replacement of lost or damaged textbooks – is not happening either, something which is particularly concerning for grades 11 and 12 where several children have to share one book.
“This appears to have been going on for some time,” he said.
A report leaked to the Mail & Guardian earlier in August revealed that 80% of a sample of 200 schools were not given enough textbooks for each pupil to have one.
New curriculum adds fuel to the fire
Section27 has concentrated its fight on grades 1, 2, 3 and 10 in Limpopo, which require new textbooks because they are the first years to implement the new curriculum. But Heywood said there are concerns that textbook shortages will also impact on children writing matric, as books are not being topped up.
“We are also concerned about what will happen next year, when the new curriculum is extended to grades 4 to 9, and grades 11 and 12, he said.
In the next instalment we'll explore how the Limpopo case shines a light on the troublesome link between service delivery and corruption, and bring you fascinating insight on why this particular crisis prompted the response it got from government and civil society.