In a digital fix

Graham Taylor's term as director of the Educational Publishers Council has started at a pivotal time: a challenge from the BBC as it steps into publishing online. He explains his concerns to Diana Hinds

Educational publishing has undergone three sea-changes since Graham Taylor began his career nearly 30 years ago. First was the decline, in the early 1980s, of the export markets for English first-language school books. Second, later in the same decade, was the launch of the national curriculum, restricting, in the short term at least, publishers' scope for innovation and variety.

And third, undergoing severe birth pangs as we speak, is Curriculum Online, the pound;50 million government initiative that will create a framework for electronic schools publishing, "the like of which we have never had before".

It has been a dramatic year for Graham Taylor to take over as director of the Educational Publishers' Council. There have been Whitehall meetings and submissions to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, along with deep concerns in the industry over the implications of Curriculum Online .

"I find this the most challenging assignment that I have ever taken on," he says, "and I have had some fairly tough ones in the past." On the day of our interview, Taylor is preparing for another session with the Department for Education, visibly stressed when I arrive and fielding last-minute calls from concerned industry colleagues. For educational publishers, the element of contention in the discussions is the exact role to be played by the BBC. Auntie has made clear its commitment to develop its public-service role in the field of electronic schools publishing. It is believed to be prepared to spend up to pound;150 million of licence-fee money over five years to provide digital curriculum resources.

"What concerns us is that the BBC materials are being offered free-to-air, thereby limiting the opportunities for paid-for material," he says, with the measured tones of someone used to repeating his point.

"At the moment, the BBC is saying it wants to cover up to 50 per cent of the learning outcomes in the core subjects. We believe it should voluntarily confine itself to 20 per cent . . . to areas where the commercial industry would struggle to make provision profitably, particularly the non-core minority subjects.

"In the core subjects, we would prefer the BBC to produce a backbone of 'rich media' - that's an important term - which would align with their commitment as a public-service broadcaster to produce distinctive, path-breaking material."

If the BBC is allowed by the Department for Culture to proceed with up to 50 per cent coverage in the core subjects, the effect on the industry will be disastrous, he argues. "The medium to long-term effect will be to seriously undermine or kill off commercial investment - leaving the BBC in an unfair, dominant position."

Educational publishers could perfectly well have met all the demands of Curriculum Online without the BBC, he maintains. But, given the BBC's involvement, educational publishers are more than willing to work together, he says. "All we ask is that everybody competes on a level playing field."

The Government is not unsympathetic to the industry's concerns, he says. Recently, it announced that new "e-learning credits" will be issued to all schools - around pound;5,000 for secondary schools, pound;1,000-pound;2,000 for primaries - to enable them to buy commercial electronic materials of their choice. "The funding is still inadequate," Taylor says, "but it's early days."

About nine or ten of the big publishers are expected to take an active part in developing materials for Curriculum Online, as well as "born digital" companies such as RM and Granada Learning. With the high level of investment needed, competition will be fierce.

There will be smaller publishing companies unable, or unwilling, to chance their arm in the electronic marketplace. But Graham Taylor takes the bullish view that there is, as yet, no real threat to the future of the book, or of book-only publishers.

"The demise of the book has been forecast for more than 20 years - but more books are being used in schools than ever. Books are a vital and cost-effective resource - that is a view shared throughout education and reflected in research.

"There is concern, especially among smaller publishers, that a shift to online may affect the demand for printed material. But history doesn't back that up. And there will be new print publishing opportunities, as yet unrealised, with online in the classroom."

False dawns are not unknown in electronic publishing. But Taylor is confident that this time we are witnessing the real thing.

With only months before a September launch, there is much to be done. "There is everything to play for," says Taylor. "There have been many meetings - and we will continue to have many meetings." He laughs, for the first and only time in our interview.

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