Picture: 123RF/MAXIM ZARYA
Picture: 123RF/MAXIM ZARYA

In SA it is rare to find even-minded critics who praise the 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 SA will be positioned “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. Fourth industrial revolution here we come!

But sometimes the government does get it right. In 2019 an unlikely province pioneered the production and distribution of books to every grade 1 to grade 3 child: the Eastern Cape. The books were anthologies of levelled readers (stories that increase in difficulty incrementally, story by story) — 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.

It was a collaboration of civil society (Molteno), private funding (Zenex Foundation and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment) and the government (Eastern Cape department of education) to innovate for the improvement of education.

Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy announced in 2012 that she would focus on primary school literacy and numeracy using coaches, lesson plans and graded readers, a formula that has emerged as the education “triple cocktail”.

At the time there were no levelled readers in black African languages, despite the fact that more than 70% of SA children learn to read in an African language in grades 1 to 3. To fill the gap the Zenex Foundation commissioned the 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 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 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 results in 2017, showing that three-quarters of SA grade 4 children (78%) could not read for meaning, the Eastern Cape department of education decided 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.

They had the 66 skinny books printed in three anthologies, one per grade with 22 stories per anthology.

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 to R8 per anthology. Comparatively, 20 Oxford Reading Tree readers cost more than R400.

They delivered the Vula Bula anthologies using a proven distribution mechanism — in the plastic wrapping with the department of basic education workbooks.

In 2018 the Eastern Cape department of education printed and distributed 824,365 anthologies to 463,276 grade 1-3 learners in 4,365 primary schools. Stacked on top of each other, all those anthologies would be as high as 26 Table Mountains.

The total cost of printing them was a prudent R7m, paid for by the department. Basic education minister Angie Motshekga could implement this nationally for all grade 1-3 children for R24m per year.

I cannot think of a better use of taxpayer money than providing all children with the basic resources they need to get on the first rung of the reading ladder.

Teaching reading is about more than just providing the right books, but it’s a good start. Reading certainly cannot be taught without them!

The Eastern Cape education department is also eliminating extreme class sizes in the foundation phase and has offered bursaries to all its foundation-phase subject advisers to enrol in a new qualification at Rhodes University on how to teach reading for meaning.

On behalf of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment I’ve been involved in the Rhodes course and advising the department at strategic points, but the credit goes to the government and these three bureaucrats who have been quietly innovating in the background.

• Dr Spaull is a senior researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. He set up the Funda Wande: Reading for Meaning programme funded by the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment.