School textbook provision — always an emergency

    A textbook storage in Zimbabwe. Education should be given aid priority and textbook provision should be high on the agenda, wrote Paul Gibbings. Photo by: Author

    The recent speech by Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations General Assembly was a powerful message. Her last sentence was, “Let’s pick up our books and our pens, they are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one student, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.” That critical figure ONE, emphasized by Malala raising her finger, can be achieved but only if the following issues are addressed.

    The provision of school textbooks in several developing countries is a current emergency, but it is an emergency that has persisted for years. Many factors have combined to ensure that there are simply never enough textbooks to go round and “one student, one book” remains a distant goal. One book for each student has been my goal for the past 23 years. I have spent these years working in developing and conflict-affected nations, printing and distributing school textbooks. Unfortunately, it has been a goal that in many cases has not been achievable, as ideology saw books burning on the highway to Kandahar, and book warehouses torched in Baghdad because of the political connection.

    Lack of funding

    Lack of Ministry and Donor funding has often been to blame, as books are an expensive major commodity, especially when many millions of them are required regularly. For those Ministries that do not use independent publishers, lack of sufficient funding results in sourcing the cheapest option. The result is a supply of poor quality books in order to try to reach that “one student, one book” target. In these cases, the target appears to have been met and the achievement reflects well on the minister concerned but the success is short-term as it rarely considers future supply for future generations.

    Mis-applied procurement procedures

    Another difficulty concerns the operational procedures of Supply sections in book procurement. Often textbooks are dealt with in the same way as other educational provisions. This is a mistake as one pen does not require much in the way of written specifications, but one textbook title requires several pages of careful instructions so that the supplier knows exactly what he is required to produce.

    Quality control by Ministries, Supply Departments and donors often inadequate

    Some suppliers take advantage of weak monitoring and supply a substandard product that does not match the specifications. Poor binding, for example, means that the textbook will fall apart more quickly, requiring earlier replacement. Those carrying out quality control require knowledge of the production process and some basic equipment that will allow them to carry out tests. There is also the fundamental need to be impervious to bribery and even threats from dishonest suppliers. Corruption is common especially where the Ministry owns the copyright. Local suppliers will try to wield financial influence over staff whose monthly salary can be matched tenfold in efforts to win a substantial contract. On occasions, specifications are doctored to suit the capacity of the local provider without any consideration for the end user.

    Textbooks are not getting cheaper

    Pulp makes up 65 percent of the cost of a book and multilateral and bilateral organisations are increasingly insisting that the paper come from managed forests. The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) defines standards that verify the paper origin and that the forest is responsibly managed. It is hoped one day all forests will be managed and this logo will be visible on all books and all bulk paper supplied for textbook production. At present, however, encouraging Ministries to consider the environment is challenging because of the increased cost of paper. They see only that there will be fewer books for the same money. It is however an option that they will be forced to adopt as the world’s forests dwindle.

    Distribution and storage difficulties

    Distribution and storage of textbooks can also present significant difficulties. Sudan, for example, has a projected grade 1 intake for 2014 of 800,000 students at 17,000 primary schools located in environmental extremes.  There will almost certainly be a substantial book loss both in transit and as a result of inadequate storage facilities. “One book, one student” becomes impossible when books are tied together using thin string and are not protected from the elements or anything else. Many books simply disappear before they reach their destination and frequently reappear on local market stalls.

    Awareness for textbook care, return and reuse

    School staff and parents have an important role to play in ensuring that books can be used again and again. They need to be instructed that textbooks are only on loan and that they should be cared for and returned to the teacher at the end of the school year. If they are, books will last longer, and provided they are of good quality, they can be used by successive generations in the toughest of environments.

    The value of a textbook is difficult to measure. Where there are adequate supplies of textbooks, students are able to take them home. There, if it is cared for and shared with other family members and if it is returned in a reusable condition then the value of each book is maximized.

    Malala’s speech has been seen and heard by millions around the world. Now is the right time to launch a serious initiative. Education deserves a greater proportion of the available aid and textbook provision should be high on the agenda.

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