School textbook production and the Covid-19 pandemic

Update on India's school textbook publishing and production during the pandemic

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Daily classes at home using web conferencing tools like Zoom Photo SP Vyas for IPP
Daily classes at home using web conferencing tools like Zoom Photo SP Vyas for IPP

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown seem like a stagnant situation where little changes. However, it is a dynamic situation where quite a bit changes every day because of the spikes in infections in the various states and the lack of clarity about when the curve will flatten. At one point various state governments said schools would physically open in August or September but with the rapid rise in Coronavirus cases across the country, there is no certainty at all.

The total lockdown of the country began on 25 March 2020 and the school year started in home-Zoom conditions in April and went on for about six weeks before the summer vacation. The summer vacation ends on 30 June and schools start again on 1 July 2020.

In the case of the well-healed upper-middle-class children, the textbooks for the current school year were ordered online and home-delivered sometime in April. In other cases, the schools provided the option for home delivery or collection from the school. This was well in time for the Zoom classes at home that require ample internet bandwidth and space for all the kids to have their own desks and corners. For the parents, organizing these individualized cloud classrooms at home demand resources in terms of gadgets (tablets, phones, and computers) and space. It is not easy for children to study in this way for four to six hours a day.

We have talked to a couple of private textbook publishers who have explained that as per the usual practice, the marketing of textbooks for the current school year started in August 2019. It must be kept in mind that the textbook publishers look at the market much like FMCG or automobile companies. They divide the market into three segments – urban, semi-urban, and rural private schools.

Orders are booked in the autumn and supplies began in the winter through traders and distributors to the schools. Generally, most of the orders come in by December or January but there are some orders that come as late February and even March. Production of the books starts by September or October and sometimes even earlier and for the private schools has to be completed by April.

Deliveries of the purchased textbooks to the distributors and schools are dictated by the storage space that the schools have — to keep them till the school year starts, and are staggered well into the new year. Textbook sales have been sluggish even in the past couple of years and most of the orders for the current year were taken by the end of 2019 and supplied between January and March. However, the late orders that usually trickle in, even in February and March, didn’t materialize this year.

The perennial marketing activity of visiting schools and showing new textbooks to teachers took a backseat with the lockdown starting on 25 March and in some states even earlier. In its place publishers, editors and marketing teams have kept working from home trying to generate interest with either digital books and add-ons or webinars for either marketing their new wares or in training the teachers to use them.

Webinars for teachers and online classes

A couple of the private textbook publishers we talked to described their work during the lockdown as outreach programs over the internet, which consist of acclimatizing the teachers to the teaching aids and resource manuals for the books purchased or prescribed by schools. These take place as Facebook or Zoom webinars and the publishers who have digitized the textbooks provide links for their use by the students for the online learning activities.

Apart from providing the online versions of textbooks as help during the lockdown, private publishers continue their digital transition. In many cases, they are trying to embed the books or the learning ecosystem with animation and interactivity such as built-in voice.

As far as the cash flow situation for the private publishers, they are largely insulated because they use traders and distributors for the last mile billing and collection. Nevertheless, the general slowdown has affected collections for many of them, since the parents themselves are under financial pressure during the lockdown and are in many cases even asking for a reduction in school fees which have not been reduced except for the bus and lunch charges.

While it is true that online ordering of books is possible for a small part of the population, we should not underestimate the fact that there is no demand-side challenge for many if not all textbook publishers. As we enter the unlock 2.0 phase, parents, even in rural areas, will eventually buy textbooks, and the collections’ issue for distributors and publishers will slowly ease out.

On the other hand, there is an expectation that many of the smaller private textbook publishers will not survive the pandemic. Without established authors or extensive lists of textbooks and reliance on either local schools that are known to them or agents and traders for distribution, some of these publishers are in trouble. In some cases, they have not been paying their printers for the past several quarters and could face further trouble if the lockdown conditions continue.

Government textbook production

In contrast to private textbook publishers, the government textbooks that are printed in large quantities are being printed even in June. Printed in major centers such as Mathura, we spoke to a printer whose production was interrupted by the lockdown in March. Having resumed production in May, he is currently producing 2,00,000 books a day for the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Uttaranchal Pradesh.

Although on the government textbook production side there are the usual cash flow problems, the printers are largely secure in the knowledge that the money will come. In fact, the government institutions seem to be trying to improve the cash flow in the supply chain in recent weeks and this has benefitted the textbook printers also.

Schools that were supposed to open on 1 July remain closed and students are studying from home
Schools that were supposed to open on 1 July remain closed and students are studying from home

National Curriculum Framework by March 2021

The National Curriculum Framework generally provides the guidelines for the school syllabi and the writing of textbooks in the country. It is also supposed to provide guidelines for teaching practices. The four previous NCFs were released in 1975, 1988, 2000, and 2005. The 2005 NCF attempted to evolve the public education system to an ecosystem of “learning without burden” implying a kind of lightening up of the learning by rote.

Curriculum revision is generally contentious and can be politically challenging with a clash of right- and left-wing ideologies. Undertaken after 15 years, the current review of the National Education Policy and the NCF was to begin in November 2019 and completed in December 2020. However, the latest information is that the National Curriculum Forum will finalize the next set of changes by March of 2021.

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Naresh Khanna
Editor of Indian Printer and Publisher since 1979 and Packaging South Asia since 2007. Trained as an offset printer and IBM 360 computer programmer. Active in the movement to implement Indian scripts for computer-aided typesetting. Worked as a consultant and trainer to the Indian print and newspaper industry. Visiting faculty of IDC at IIT Powai in the 1990s. Also founder of IPP Services, Training and Research and has worked as its principal industry researcher since 1999. Author of book: Miracle of Indian Democracy.

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