The solution to the schoolbook snafu is the elimination of the unnecessary from the supply chain, through the application of business principles, according to research from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.
Photo: Flickr, Thomas Favre-Bulle.
This year, two million pupils in Limpopo are likely to have their learning compromised because the Department of Education has failed to get them the textbooks they need.
In the scramble to deliver books to schools, Limpopo has been at the centre of the drama. Earlier this year, a consignment of regular books was delivered to a blind school. Pupils at the Siloe School for the Blind in Thokgwaneng village near Lebowakgomo were sent books meant for sighted learners.
Some schools did not receive books at all, or too late, or not enough – and some Afrikaans learners received Xhosa language books. In other reports these valuable teaching resources are being shredded, burned, hidden and dumped.
It is a situation that has prompted human rights activists to bring – and win – a case on behalf of schools in the region against government. The high court ruled that government’s failure to provide textbooks to all state school pupils violates learners’ constitutional rights to education.
Another case has since been brought in the Eastern Cape arguing that the right to basic education includes teachers. Although these two provinces represent the worst of the education materials debacle, the problem affects the whole country.
Despite departmental policy that all pupils should have both text and workbooks available to them, the availability of books still varies radically from province to province. Limpopo is the worst affected with only 11% of pupils receiving prescribed books. By all accounts the government’s undertaking to get books in front of 85% of all state school learners by 2014 is wildly ambitious. Why basic education gets a failing grade
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is getting the brunt of the blame for the lack of textbooks in the places they should be, the classrooms, but it is more likely that the rot permeates the whole delivery chain, says Siyabonga Simayi, who made the issue of textbook delivery the subject of his PhD thesis at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business
Decisions around the choice of textbooks, the suppliers used and procurement processes for the Eastern Cape for example – which was the poorest performing province last year with a matric pass rate of just 58.1% – are mostly handled at a head office located in Zwelitsha, and controlled by the government. This suggests that the reforms and decentralisation plans initiated in the late 90s to improve delivery have not been effective. Rather, the process of supply still remains centralised, with the lines of authority blurred and the definition of responsibilities as clear as mud. Lessons from business
“The failure to provide learning materials is an operational inefficiency problem; it is exacerbated by centralisation, with no feedback mechanisms and no built in back-up systems says Elspeth Donovan, Chairperson of Christel House South Africa a privately-operated school for disadvantaged children in Cape Town. Christel House is championing an holistic model of education – an explicit part of what it does is seek ways to address the education challenges in South Africa.
“The lack of delivery of essential learning materials to our young people will ultimately impact everyone in this country,” says Donovan.
According to Simayi, the principles of ‘Lean Thinking’ – a business philosophy originally developed by the automotive industry – can be applied to the textbook crisis to identify wasteful activities in the procurement chain. Cutting out the middleman
Ways to simplify the supply chain could include allowing schools to choose their own textbooks from an approved list of suppliers, for example. “This would mean a more direct relationship that more effectively meets local needs,” says Simayi. “Plus, the approved books list ensures curriculum consistency, and thus the overall standard and quality of learners.”
About 70% of schools Simayi surveyed indicated that a direct relationship, possibly even a procurement relationship, with the suppliers could save time and money.
Lean Thinking is about reducing waste. And it has already been successfully applied in hospitals across the country through a project run by the Lean Institute Africa – based at the UCT GSB. The application of lean principles helped improve efficiency in one hopsital’s resuscitation room – reducing the time taken to find and hand tools to doctors in an emergency from 400 seconds to 87 seconds. It was a simple change, but made the difference between life and death for some patients. In another example, patients’ waiting time for medication at a clinic was reduced from six hours to 90 minutes.
In the Eastern Cape schools setting, Simayi, himself a resident of Port Elizabeth, said with the application of these philosophies, books could reach their destinations 25% faster. For example, cutting out district offices could eliminate a six-week wait for books. Things happen faster when schools talk directly to the provincial head office: “Systems work best when they operate as close to the delivery as possible,” says Simayi. His PhD study found that activities in the district office do not add value in the supply of textbooks; if schools and the Eastern Cape Department of Education communicated directly, you could achieve a delivery time of two weeks instead of eight, he says. Putting the right people in the right places
Other savings are to be had by employing the right people and deploying them in the right places, says Simayi.
The time spent capturing and processing orders, for example, can be halved by investing in technology and hiring computer-literate staff. Wasted time waiting for untrained data capturers, or the appointment of new staff should be cut out. “If temporary staff were sought in time and three full-time administrators were employed permanently, the Eastern Cape Department of Education could grow their own skills and achieve continuous improvement,” says Simayi.
He also suggests that a lack of high-level leadership and low level of co-ordination between the main function ‘silos’ in the department is exacerbated by the lack of a central control point of accountability for learners’ books.
Over the years the Eastern Cape Department of Education has appointed several learner materials managers with more than this portfolio to fulfill, meaning that this important function falls by the wayside more often than not as people move on.
“Those appointments were never senior enough to ensure compliance with necessary timelines for the supply of textbooks,” says Simayi.
The result is that there is insufficient integration in the supply chain, insufficient pressure for swift decisions and actions and insufficient oversight and monitoring of compliance across the supply chain. “Establishment of a board of directors would assist in determining budgets and personnel requirements particularly administrative for the capturing and processing of requisitions,” he adds. Outsourcing
Finally, Simayi says that using external managing agents to enable the tracking and tracing of deliveries, under the close supervision of the education department could be another solution. With administrative and logistical functions (such as ordering, sorting, packaging and storing of books and stationery, as well as capturing of requisitions, checking and correcting placements of orders and constantly reporting on the delivery system), the distribution of books can be undertaken by local small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). This system would allow the departments to manage orders and deliveries and know at a glance exactly how many books a school has ordered and received, and even check orders against the number of enrolments in a school.
The appointed SMMEs would buy books and stationery directly from publishers and manufacturers on behalf of the department ensures that any discounts obtained through economies of scale from the publishers will flow back into the budget for learner materials, which in turn will enable the department to buy more books.
Outsourcing would also ensure that the textbook system is not managed as a once-off annual project, but a continuous activity that requires budgeting. There are other advantages too: Quick and efficient service delivery to schools; long-term sustainability; and optimal utilisation of limited resources.
Statistical evidence shows that the pass rate in schools is strongly associated with the availability of textbooks. And it’s one of the factors that indicate whether or not the Department of Basic Education is delivering an acceptable and sustainable service.
With Lean Thinking business and government can work together to streamline the schoolbook supply process, and get the books into classrooms where learners need them, for the benefit of society as a whole. Dr Siyabonga Simayi researched the issue of textbook delivery for his PhD thesis through the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. He has requested a place of the Basic Education Ministry’s task team to investigate the textbook delivery chain – he is still awaiting a response.