Calls for children’s books to be affordable like generic drugs

Two decades after South African activists took on the global pharmaceutical industry and their own government to limit access to medicines, educators across the country are waging a similar battle to improve its learning standards.

Just as patents on life-saving antiretroviral drugs restrict the treatment of the growing number of HIV-positive patients in South Africa, copyright protection for high-quality children’s books is an obstacle to improving the quality of life. literacy for the next generation, according to Nic Spaull, associate professor of economics at Stellenbosch University.

Like good but cheap off-patent generics, “we need ‘generic books’ that separate cost from quality,” says Spaull. “The Gruffalo and Winnie the Pooh have great stories, narratives and illustrations that make them compelling. Kids love them but are stuck in the cost.

Gaps in the supply of books raise broader questions about the distinctions between health and education. Both contribute to human capital essential for development, but although substantial attention and funding have improved the provision of health care in many low-income countries in recent years, progress in schools has been more limited.

One reason is the debate over which interventions are most effective in schools, as well as the much longer time it takes to measure and identify the factors responsible for success than it takes to know whether a drug can target a drug. sickness.

Pair and independent reading at Samuel Ntsiko Elementary School, Grahamstown

Spaull wants international publishers to waive fees to make their books affordable to distribute in low-income areas. He believes that translations into the local languages ​​of countries or peoples with low purchasing power would not threaten their business models but would help increase reading levels.

Terry Morris, Managing Director of Pan Macmillan South Africa, who publishes The Gruffalo, agrees that affordability and access to books are important for improving literacy. But she adds, “I don’t think the solution is to import royalty-free imported content from international publishers that still needs translation. This undermines the local industry and ignores the importance of local content that takes into account cultural sensitivities and heritage.

Spaull is considering “strategic litigation” with the aim of pushing the South African government to increase its funding and fulfill its constitutional commitment to guarantee all citizens the right to basic education. Over the past decade, he has explored ways to tackle the country’s low literacy and basic numeracy levels in primary schools. He found few useful resources in several local languages, including Sepedi and isiXhosa.

A student and a teacher at a writing lesson

A writing lesson at Ikhwezilesizwe Primary School, Khayelitsha, Western Cape

In response, Spaull founded the charity Funda Wande. The organization aims to ensure that by 2030 all South African children learn to ‘read to understand and calculate with confidence’ by the age of 10. and progress to high school and beyond.

At the heart of the program are downloadable materials that are open or free commons, including readers, flashcards, and workbooks produced by literacy consultants and funded by philanthropists. These are complemented by resources for teachers, such as course guidelines and the support of a network of mentors and assistants.

A brown-skinned female teacher holding a book

Ms. Kepe, teacher at Fikizolo Primary School, Grahamstown Eastern Cape

“The standards of some things on the Internet are low,” Spaull says, as are “official black and white books”. He is frustrated with the choice of material that governments buy from local publishers, and that governments are often more willing to spend more on items such as laptops and teacher salaries, “which crowd out non-input. teachers like textbooks ”.

Interim evaluations of Funda Wande’s work before the pandemic suggested the children had gained the equivalent of a quarter to six months of additional learning. An evaluation by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education called the program “inspiring,” while highlighting opportunities for improvement, such as approaches to promote fluency.

“There has been a big change for my children over the past two years,” says Nonzwakazi Msindo, a teacher at Dimbaza Primary School in the Eastern Cape Province. “It was difficult for almost all of the kids in my class to graduate with confidence, and we didn’t even have children’s books. Now we have them in a colorful format that kids can take home and parents can help them read.

One obstacle was that with limited and expensive books in the classroom, teachers were often reluctant to distribute them to children, let alone take them home, where they could be damaged. By making reading materials cheap and widely available, Funda Wande has made it possible for students to take their books outside of school. A bigger problem was that the books were sometimes too thick for young children to handle, so they are now produced in smaller, more manageable volumes.

“High-quality materials are absolutely necessary and we don’t have enough of them,” says Nompumelelo Mohohlwane of the Basic Education Department. She warns that of the different approaches, including that of Funda Wande, “every organization will say that theirs is the best, but that not enough is being done to assess large-scale solutions.” She argues that a higher ratio of schools for each mentor provided by the charity could result in larger improvements at a lower cost.

Nangamso Mtsatse, Managing Director of Funda Wande, agrees that more resources are needed. Much like the country’s health activists, “the next phase will focus on lobbying and advocacy to ensure that literacy and numeracy remain a political priority.”

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