The book of today has many aggressors. Not only must it fight to retain its role alongside the rapid developments in information technology, but in schools it faces an increasingly tough battle for its fair share of the budget. As many schools spend less and less on books, many simply do not have enough to go round.
According to the Chief Inspector's 1995-96 report, half of the primary schools in the UK have inadequate quantities of books, and nearly one in four secondary schools has a serious shortage. Some schools, says John Davies, director of the Educational Publishers Council, are having to use badly out-of-date textbooks - maths books, for instance, which do not take account of decimalisation, or geography books which do not give countries their new names.
A recent survey by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations found that in 90 per cent of schools, children in some classes are having to share key textbooks. And, as a way of safeguarding already inadequate stocks, more and more schools are refusing to allow books to be taken home for homework, relying instead on worksheets.
But sharing a book or using sheets of photocopied extracts is no substitute, insists the Educational Publishers Council, for keeping a book for a term, being able to refer to it at will, to move back and forth within it, even to read it from cover to cover. In too many secondary schools, pupils seldom have the experience of reading a whole book.
Last year, a committee of headteachers chaired by Professor Eric Bolton, former chief inspector, set out to establish reasonable guidelines for what schools need to spend on books to meet the requirements of the national curriculum. A total of Pounds 56 per child was found to be "adequate" provision for 11 to 16-year-olds, and Pounds 67 represented good provision. But a 1995 survey by the Educational Publishers Council and The Times Educational Supplement had already demonstrated that almost half of all state secondary schools in England and Wales spent as little as Pounds 20 or less per pupil.
This autumn, the Office for Standards in Education will launch an investigation into the schools with the poorest book provision. Does the fault lie in the overall funding from Government, in the allocation made by the local authority to the school, or in the money allocated by the school itself?
John Davies believes it is probably a mixture of all three. Schools undoubtedly have more and more pressure on their budgets, and the extra government funds allotted to books in the early 1990s to assist with the implementation of the national curriculum are now dispersed. But Professor Bolton, now chairman of the campaigning School Book Alliance, says that part of the blame must lie with individual schools not giving high enough priority to book spending, since schools of similar intakes and incomes vary considerably in the amount they spend.
"Books have a huge and continuing role to play - even though, in the case of information books, new technology makes this a more reduced role than 50 years ago," he says. "But there are lots of teachers who need persuading of this; there is no guarantee that the vast bulk of teachers are themselves readers. "
David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has made sympathetic noises about school book funding, but it would surely be unwise to assume that an injection of Government cash will resolve the mounting crisis. The introduction of a scheme in which the amount schools spend on books would be one of the "bench-marks" of good performance might help to raise spending levels. Professor Bolton also believes that parental pressure, based on accurate knowledge of schools spending, can make a significant difference, and the School Book Alliance's Parents' Action Pack sets out exactly what they should do. "One problem is that some parents underestimate the importance of books and tend to think that new technology is going to do everything," he says.
On the subject of parents, The Bookseller goes one step further, suggesting, in a recent editorial, that parents should take the responsibility for providing their children with the books they need - as they do in Ireland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Korea and Italy - with adequate safeguards to help poor families. This might not, in this country, be so radical a step as it appears, The Bookseller adds, since in some schools parent-teacher associations and other private bodies are already raising up to three times more for books than the public sector provides.
Educational publishers report an increasingly fierce market in this country. The reduction in the number of examination boards (to four) and syllabuses per subject (two) has intensified competition among publishers. There are growing concerns that some publishers are doing cosy deals with boards to produce "the book of the course", thus forcing others out of the market, as well as restricting teachers' choice. The joint forum of exam boards is currently considering introducing a code of practice to ensure that any such alliances are the result of open tendering.
Brenda Stones, publishing director of the Oxford University Press educational division, says that, despite schools' funding problems, if teachers feel a particular book is essential, schools will find a way of buying it. "But books have to be even better to survive now - easier to use, content-based and offering a lot of support to teachers," she says.
The national curriculum and the growing emphasis on subject cores dictate the content of textbooks to a far greater extent than a decade ago. This has meant a decline in export sales, and Kay Symons, secondary publishing director at Heinemann, says there is also less innovative publishing in terms of teaching styles.
"Now we have to be the first to offer support for homework, or help with assessment. We are a bit more constrained, as the content is prescribed, but this makes the market much more competitive because it is so obvious what you have to put in the book."
Publishers have also had to adapt to a faster pace, to accommodate national curriculum revisions. The Government's recent announcement that the new A-level and vocational syllabuses will not now be introduced, as planned, in September 1998, will have sent publishers scurrying back to their drawing boards to tinker with embryonic plans.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is also keeping a beady eye on the quality of secondary textbook publishing, assessing individual books, subject by subject, on how well they deliver the curriculum, and reporting back to publishers. SCAA has pledged not to condemn or condone individual books publicly - its first, generalised reports will be available this summer - but John Davies says that, privately, a few feathers have been ruffled among publishers by critical feedback.
"Teachers have become much more careful and considered in their buying decisions, and we have to be sure that we have absolutely the right product, " sums up David Fothergill, director of publishing development at Thomas Nelson. "Part of this is pressure on funding, but it is also partly the result of the new accountability syndrome, with more pressure on teachers to deliver the right grades. It means harder work for us, too - but that is appropriate in a tight marketplace."
School Book Alliance, 22 Endell Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9AD