The recent directive by Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i that Kenya should adopt a one-textbook policy for public schools appears to have thrown the sector into confusion.
Dr Matiang’i has advocated a system where schools are made to buy only one course book per subject.
This, he said, is meant to dismantle cartels he believes are profiting illegally from learning materials.
Speaking at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) on June 14, Dr Matiang’i said the current system is prone to manipulation by crooked marketers, who collude to have schools buy up to six books per subject, leading to wastage of funds provided by the government for the purchase of reading materials.
His sentiments have put him on a collision course with publishers and booksellers, who now feel that he wants to drive them out of business.
The CS has based his argument on a wrong premise.
He claims publishers have colluded with the KICD to increase the number of recommended books per subject to six.
However, the true position is that the six-book policy has been in place since 2002, after the curriculum was changed.
The policy states that the KICD, then known as the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), was supposed to approve six books per subject, but schools would choose only one.
The idea was to give schools choice over what is to be studied.
PRIVATE FIRMS LOCKED OUT
A little background on how this policy was arrived at suffices.
In the early years of the 8-4-4 system, the government created a monopoly where only State publishers – Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB) and Jomo Kenyatta Foundation (JKF) – were the only ones that published books for schools.
At the time, KIE, the curriculum developer, was also involved in book publishing.
All private book publishers were locked out of school book publishing.
In spite of the glaring contradiction, staffers at KIE were actively writing books yet they were the ones who were supposed to vet and approve what was produced by publishers.
The monopoly enjoyed by KLB and JKF was such that the books produced for consumption in schools were of shoddy quality, while the pricing was arbitrary.
This resulted in a public outcry and an agitation for the liberalisation of book publishing and trade.
The campaign was spearheaded by the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), which Dr Matiang’i now wants to muscle out of the book publishing equation.
The push was later supported by donors funding education.
They included the World Bank, the Department for International Development, and the Danish International Development Agency.
The government yielded to the public outcry and allowed the liberation of the industry.
In this context, the Education ministry, working with other education stakeholders, agreed to develop a national textbook policy that stipulated that the government would no longer be involved in book publishing.
Instead, it would develop policy and be involved in quality and standards as well as supervision.
Book publishing and distribution then became the domain of private sector players.
The objective of liberalising the book sector was to create a vibrant, competitive and customer-focused industry.
It was envisaged this would lead to the production of high quality textbooks in terms of content, packaging and production, and, at the same time, ensure fair and affordable prices.
The move also sought to create a level playing field for publishers.
This resulted in a conducive environment for the growth and expansion of the publishing industry.
KPA chairman Lawrence Njagi disputes Dr Matiangi’s assertion that schools are made to buy up to six books per subject.
“The fact of the matter is that schools buy only one book per subject as stated in the Orange Book,” Mr Njagi said.
“The misconception here comes in the six-book ceiling that was put in place in 2003.
"The policy states that KICD approves six books per subject but schools choose only one out of the six. This was meant to give schools variety.”
While he does not dispute that there could be some irregularities in the distribution of books in schools, he said that is beyond their control.
“Ours is to produce the books and supply them to bookshops for onward distribution to schools,” he said.
“This is a matter best addressed by the audit section of the ministry. If regular audits were carried out and action taken on the findings, the issues the minister is complaining about would not occur in the first place.”
Regarding the issue of Rwanda’s policy of distributing books, the KPA chairman said the minister got it wrong on that country’s book distribution model.
“Kenyan publishers are heavily involved in book distribution in Rwanda, so we know how their system operates.
"They actually have a three-book policy for purposes of allowing choice for schools.
"The government purchases 50 per cent of the top rated book and 25 per cent each for the second and third books,” Mr Njagi, who is also the CEO of Mountain Top Publishers, said.
Dr Matiang’i has been consistent and unapologetic in streamlining the distribution of books in schools.
“We cannot achieve better learning outcomes if children in schools have no learning materials. People cannot complain that I am putting them out of business. I have no problem putting thieves out of business,” he said at the KICD.
It would appear that the target of his ire are booksellers, some of whom conspire with rogue school heads to pocket free primary school funds while failing to remit books to educational institutions.
The minister appears to prefer a distribution model where booksellers will be removed from the chain such that publishers supply their books direct to schools.
This is what the booksellers are up against and have, thus, been complaining that the ministry wants to drive them out of business.
Dr Matiang’i, it appears, has been bulldozing his way through many issues, and publishers, key stakeholders in the educational process, are finding themselves bending over backwards, trying to accommodate his edicts, lest they find themselves thrown off the table altogether.
Emasculated publishers are currently working on a model where they will appoint distributors, who will then take their books directly to schools.
This is in spite of the fact that the proposed model is clearly anti-business.
When contacted, Booksellers Association of Kenya chairperson Josephine Omanwa said her organisation can only issue a comprehensive statement on the matter after it holds its meeting next week.
Stakeholders in the education sector fear that the upheavals currently being experienced are being instigated at the behest of foreign entities that are eyeing the market.
Clearly, all is not well at the ministry. Senior officials in the ministry have resigned, protesting over how things are being carried out.