“In Praise of Unsexy Policies” (my BD article on the ECDOE rollout of graded reader anthologies)

The article below first appeared in the Business Day on the 29th of April under the title “Eastern Cape pioneers book printing and distribution scheme to pupils“)

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In South Africa it is rare to find even-minded critics that praise our government. I suspect there is a latent fear that compliments will lead to complacency and laurels to laziness. Perhaps it’s simply that we are disappointed in almost everything; high aspirations repeatedly confronting harsh realities. Earlier in 2019 the President proclaimed that we will “position South Africa as a global competitive player within the digital revolution space.” Yet 48% of primary schools don’t have internet, 26% have no running water and 12% have no electricity (SMS 2017). Fourth Industrial Revolution here we come!

Yet sometimes government does get it right and we should give credit where credit is due. In 2019 an unlikely province pioneered the production and distribution of books to every Grade 1-3 child in the province; the Eastern Cape. The books were anthologies of levelled readers – crucial reading resources normally only available to middle-class children. By quietly inventing a new way to produce, print and distribute high-quality Open Access books, three bureaucrats changed the reality of schooling for 463,276 children in 2019. I’d like to briefly tell this story; the collaboration of civil society (Molteno), private funding (Zenex Foundation and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment) and government (Eastern Cape Department of Education) to innovate for the improvement of education.

Our story starts in Gauteng in 2012 when the MEC Barbara Creecy announced that she was going to focus on primary school literacy and numeracy using coaches, lesson plans and graded readers (a formula that has emerged as the education ‘triple cocktail’) (GPLMS). At the time there were no levelled readers in African languages (i.e. stories that increase in difficulty incrementally, story by story), despite the fact that 70%+ of South African children learn to read in an African language in Grades 1-3. To fill the gap the Zenex Foundation commissioned a well-known South African NGO (Molteno) to develop graded readers in all African languages in a series called ‘Vula Bula’. These were short stories (‘skinny books’) levelled from Story 1 to Story 66 in each language. (Middle-class parents may be familiar with “Biff, Chip and Kipper” – the characters in the Oxford Reading Tree series). The Vula Bula skinny books were printed and distributed to half of all primary schools in Gauteng.

After the release of the PIRLS 2016 results in 2017 showing that three quarters of South African Grade 4 children (78%) could not read for meaning, the Eastern Cape Department of Education took a strategic resolution to focus on Literacy in Grades 1-3. Three of the top bureaucrats in the department – Themba Kojana, Ray Tywakadi and Penny Vinjevold – drew up a reading strategy to provide access to levelled readers to all Grade 1-3 children in the province.

To cut a long story short, they decided to print the 66 skinny books in three anthologies (one per grade with 22 stories per anthology). The genius here is that the main cost of printing readers is the cover of the ‘skinny books’ and the licensing fees paid to publishers.  By eliminating licensing fees (using Open Access readers), combining stories into one book with one cover, and printing in large print runs of more than 100,000 per anthology they reduced the cost per anthology to R8-per-anthology. To give a price comparison, 20 Oxford Reading Tree readers cost more than R400. Lastly they delivered the Vula Bula anthologies using a proven distribution mechanism – in the plastic wrapping together with the DBE workbooks.

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In 2018 the ECDOE printed and distributed 824,365 anthologies to 463,276 Grade 1-3 learners in 4,365 primary schools. To give you a sense of the scale, if you stacked all those anthologies on top of each other it would be the same height as 26 Table Mountains! The total cost of printing them was a prudent R7-million, paid for by the Eastern Cape Department of Education. By my calculations Minister Motshekga could implement this nationally for all Grade 1-3 children for R24-million per year. I personally cannot think of a better use of taxpayer money than providing every child with the basic resources they need to get on the first rung of the reading ladder.

Obviously teaching reading is about more than just providing the right books, but it’s a good start. You certainly can’t teach reading without them! The ECDOE is also eliminating extreme class sizes in the Foundation Phase and has offered bursaries to all of its Foundation Phase subject advisers to enrol in a new qualification at Rhodes on how to teach reading for meaning. On behalf of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment I’ve been involved with the Rhodes course and advising the ECDOE at strategic points in this journey, but the credit here goes to government and these three bureaucrats who have been quietly innovating in the background. They are ultimately the ones who are responsible for implementing these programmes on the ground.

Policies like these are the bread and butter of educational improvement. Providing books and teaching teachers how to teach reading isn’t sexy, but neither is plumbing. Both are necessary for improvement – even in the ‘digital revolution space.’

3 responses to ““In Praise of Unsexy Policies” (my BD article on the ECDOE rollout of graded reader anthologies)

  1. Great story Nic, thank you for sharing – great example of public sector innovation – should be recognized in the psi annual awards. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks Nic, l have gone through this story as well. Thats great innovation we must spread. l’m humbled by this development and l hope it will continue yielding good fruits up to NSC level

  3. Robin Bhagowat

    I am a retired primary school principal. I find your writings very thought provoking and look forward to them.
    In light of the well pubicisized shortcomings of literacy and numeracy i would like your thoughts on the following:
    1. Grade 1 to 6 curriculum should consist of the 3 rs plus a 4th learning area to cover the other topics.
    2. This concentration of the 3 rs should be shared between the class teacher as well as the senior teacher. This hopefully will ensure that meaningful support and guidance is a available to both learner and educator.
    3. The secondary phase would be able to expand the learning areas with the hopefully more literate and numerate learner.

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