How we could triple the availability of textbooks

books copyOur first new policy paper as the GEM Report is out today and shows how altering the textbook market to a more centralised finance model could take up to $3 off the price of each book. Combining this approach with finance models similar to those attached to the Gavi vaccine alliance could triple the number of textbooks available for children worldwide.

The fact is that many millions of children do not have access to textbooks. A survey of primary schools in eleven developing countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Uruguay shows that, on average, up to a fifth of grade 4 pupils do not have a textbook or have to share one.  In Cameroon, there was only 1 reading textbook for 12 students and only 1 mathematics textbook for 14 students in grade 2. In some countries, including Kenya, Malawi and Namibia, the rise in school enrolment is making textbook availability even scarcer.

textbooks 2This is a crucial issue for all of us as we embark upon the new UN Sustainable Development Agenda, within which good quality education for increased learning outcomes is put front and centre. Our research shows that this lack of textbooks is holding back learning. In 22 sub-Saharan African countries, providing one textbook to every student in a classroom increased literacy scores by 5-20%.

In addition, UIS data shows that governments are not investing enough in textbooks. In 2012, in 36 countries with data, less than 2% of the primary education budget was spent on teaching and learning materials on average; 16 countries spent less than 1%. Only Kuwait and Malawi spent close to 5% or more.

What this means is that parents are often left covering the cost of learning materials for their children, creating further barriers to acquisition of basic skills and other learning outcomes for the poorest.  Learning materials constitute over a third of total household spending on education in 12 African countries, increasing to over half of spending on education among the poorest households.

This situation clearly needs improvement, which is why our paper has investigated the benefits of shifting to a nationally centralised textbook procurement process, which would pool demand for textbooks and ensure long-term and predictable financing. With better understanding of future textbook needs, finance models such as matched private-donor funding, would significantly increase the contributions made by the private sector.  This is why we have released this paper today, in time for the World Economic Forum, where we hope to prick the ears of the companies meeting on the slopes in Davos.

textbooksOur estimates find that centralising procurement could shave US$3 off the price of each book, saving almost US$1 billion in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Kenya could save $US64 million from their textbook bill. Malawi could save US$33 million.

If similar models to those used by the Gavi Alliance for textbooks, such as matched private-donor funding were also used, we calculate that available external aid for textbooks in sub-Saharan Africa could increase from US$549 million to US$785 million. This, together with the potential cost savings owing to a more centralised procurement approach, could more than triple the number of textbooks available in the region.

Globally, this approach could triple the number of books available to children around the world.

Next to a well-prepared teacher and sufficient instructional time, well-designed textbooks in sufficient quantities are a highly effective way to improve student learning. This has been recognised by some countries – notably Swaziland, Guatemala and Nicaragua – but many others have yet to follow. Our GEM Report is mandated to monitor the new global education goal and will continue to compile evidence on learning materials. We are convinced this is one of the best indicators of a country’s commitment to providing good quality education for all.

Here are our core recommendations for ensuring textbooks can move cheaply and effectively from a printing house to school and into the hands of children:

  1. Carry out effective demand forecasting. At country level this should be coordinated by the Global Partnership for Education and Local Education Group.
  2. Increase domestic funds for textbooks. At least 3-5% of the primary education budget and 6-8% of the secondary education budget should be spent on textbooks.
  3. Channel a larger share of resources for textbooks through one central Fund. Donors should at least double the current 11% of basic education aid being disbursed through a pooled funding mechanism.
  4. Incentivise increased domestic funding for textbooks. A Global Book Fund should ensure external resources for textbooks are matched in commitments from governments.
  5. Match private-donor funding. Donors should commit to matching pledges by private donors.
  6. We need pooled demand for textbooks. Offers of pricing and volume guarantees should be given through advance market commitments, and be underpinned by sustainable financing from a range of public and private actors.
  7. Report on textbook spending in a transparent way. Better information will guide better spending. We need to know what is being spent on textbooks and teaching and learning materials by both governments and donors.


  1. Although I would not criticise the notion that schools need more textbooks -lets ensure that these textbooks not only are up to date but reflect more innovative learning approaches. Secondly perhaps we can compliment this with a more ‘home grown’ and contextualised approach by providing materials for teachers/parents/students to make their own books. These can easily be used to extend the use of local languages, where appropriate.

  2. The supply of textbooks is clearly very important. However, a first order issue is whether the textbooks can be read by learners and therefor used in the classroom. In countries in which learners learn in a second language (L2), and have low ability in that language, textbooks are often unreadable and thus unused. The textbooks are normally written as if they were intended for native speakers of the language; learners have nothing like the L2 reading ability they need to understand them and teachers therefore do not use the books. This is the case for example in Rwanda where research by the British Council shows books in primary schools, while supplied to schools, remaining unused. Research in Rwanda by the University of Bristol shows that textbooks used in grade 4 – the first year of English-medium schooling – are designed for native speakers and have a readability score, amongst native speaker readers, of well above grade four. Low-L2 ability readers cannot therefore read them. Research in Tanzania shows similar results. Experience generally in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) shows that textbooks are published as if designed for native speakers and demonstrate none of the characteristics which they should show if designed for L2 users. In addition, in SSA learner reading ability in L2 is widely shown to be low: Uwezo evidence for 2013 shows that in Uganda for example, fewer than 4 in 10 children aged 10-16 years display literacy skills at a Grade 2 level. Other evidence in SSA shows that reading events in the classroom are in general rare: learners are thus not being asked to read. A combination of few opportunities to read, low reading ability in L2 and textbooks which are unreadable is a significant matter which will result in books remaining unused. It is important to improve textbook supply (as is notably the case in Rwanda), but improvements in this respect are wasted if learners (and often teachers) cannot read the textbooks and if, as a consequence, they are not used. It is notable that both governments and NGOs tend to be unaware of this crucial issue – it is not, for example, mentioned in this paper. A great deal of money spent on textbooks is being wholly wasted on textbooks which may be efficiently supplied but unusable. In L2-medium education, for example in SSA, much more attention needs to be paid by education authorities and NGOs to the design of textbooks to make them usable by both teachers and learners.

    1. Agree totally with you -before just asking for more textbooks -start looking at the needs of students, the relevance of the textbook, appropriateness given cultural, geographic and education contexts in which they are to be used etc

    2. Yes textbooks need to be up to date, innovative (in terms of pedagogy and learning approaches) and sensitive to the diverse language needs of the students who will be using them. We obviously have no qualms with any of this. However, if students don’t have access to any textbooks at all, or have access only to dated, less relevant textbooks because they are too expensive to produce or distribute in sufficient quantities, or are only accessible to children from better off families, then there is a pressing need to revamp the procurement and financing processes to address this challenges. This is precisely what the paper calls for.
      However, in response to the concerns you raise, which we agree are also of paramount importance to a quality education, we will be releasing another paper on textbooks and their content in April on World Book Day.

  3. Thanks for your blog, I don’t see the link towards the paper, the conditions of private participation should be thought carefully, taken into consideration the Moroccan experience, national donors (private and parapublic institutions) have been involved in financing textbooks procurement along with Moe but introducing substitution in financing, although the policy has resulted in getting textbooks in the classrooms, there are issues of funs disbursement and sustainability, for news :
    for report on textbook chain in Morocco:

  4. Textbook is the major resource to give an proper education.Therefore it was one of the best way to provide knowledge to small children for their better future.
    Thanks for Education blog

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