Every January, just before the start of the new school year, parents in Kenya and across Africa often face a huge headache: Purchasing textbooks and uniforms. Textbooks are prohibitively expensive and often unavailable.
According to a recent World Bank report, 'Getting textbooks to every child in sub-Saharan Africa', the shortage of teaching and learning materials undermines improvements in learning throughout the region.
A survey of 22 countries found that in 2010, the "median country" had 1.4 students per textbook in both reading and math in primary education. In Kenya, the average number of textbooks per student was 3.1 according to the Service Delivery Indicators survey of 2013.
There was also a large variation in the indicator. In only 10 per cent of the schools, students did not have to share textbooks. At the other extreme, roughly five per cent of schools had less than one textbook for five students.
Kenya is one of the countries that has struggled to make textbooks affordable and available for every schoolchild. To tackle the problem, the government and the World Bank joined forces under the Secondary Education Quality Improvement Project.
The reforms undertaken reduced the cost of textbooks for grades seven to 12, including distribution costs, by almost 65 per cent. In one year, the government saved $138 million (Sh13.8 billion) on grades seven to 12 textbooks alone. In addition, the books began to reach schools on time. All this was achieved with a relatively small investment of $13 million (Sh1.3 billion).
Last school year, for the first time in Kenya, every student in grade nine got a free textbook, which brought tremendous enthusiasm among the children, parents, teachers, school management boards, and government officials.
Previously, the Kenya Institute of Curricula Development (KICD) invited publishers to submit textbook content for each subject for every grade. It then reviewed the content based on the curricula along with the proposed cost and quality of paper and printing. The KICD shortlisted six titles for each subject for each grade, which were then listed in a government-approved catalogue called Orange Book.
Schools were free to choose any one of the six titles and buy those books with annual grants provided by the government. Because the grant was inadequate, there were insufficient books, they did not arrive on time, and they were unaffordable. Also, books were often stolen from schools and the artificial shortage caused prices to soar.
The joint World Bank-government team focused on reforming procurement and distribution systems. The objective was to reduce textbook price, while maintaining a high quality of printing, paper and binding.
The team identified a core textbook for each subject and each grade, which the government could buy and provide to each child, with a focus on improving the efficiency of distribution.
The reform was the result of ongoing consultation with public and private publishers, the Education ministry, the KICD, and other key local stakeholders. This dialogue was critical for building collective understanding and ownership of the needs and benefits of the envisioned reform.
After considering several options, the various parties agreed to a commercial bidding process leading to a framework agreement with the successful bidders.
The competition was limited to the publishers listed in the Orange Book. It was agreed that the lowest priced book would be the core textbook, and other bids that fell within 20 per cent of the lowest priced book would be listed in the Orange Book, which parents could buy as supporting material if they wished.
The price of the textbook included delivery to the school and a discount on large-volume orders. The bid also stipulated quality parameters for paper, printing, and binding, and further review of content by the KICD upon short-listing.
As a result, the revised process saved the country millions of dollars, but not without challenges. For example, most local publishers didn’t have the capacity to print the required volume in such a short time, often because it required a significant amount of paper, skilled workers, and modern printing machines.
The Bank worked with the local team to address these challenges by providing guidance on the procurement process, helping the publishers import quality paper, recruiting and training skilled workers, and outsourcing/managing some of the printing to meet Kenya’s demand and quality standards.
Realising the potential of the reform, the government decided to expand the process to all textbooks, all subjects, and all grades, from preschool through grade 12.
The writer is a World Bank Senior Education Specialist