The current financial problems in schools have focused attention on class sizes and on the loss of teaching posts. Not surprisingly, this is seen as a priority and other parts of the school budget (premises maintenance, non-teaching staff, books and equipment) have been squeezed in order to keep teachers in front of classes.
The consequent downward pressure on the spending on books, generally running at about 2 per cent of a school's budget, has serious implications. Educational publishers, for whom life has been particularly difficult over the past few years as the curriculum and syllabus content have changed at irregular intervals, have welcomed the prospect of five years of curriculum stability and have been preparing to develop new materials for the current school year, and particularly for 1996 and beyond.
Much of the cost of a book is in the initial preparation and publishers need to have a good print-run to keep costs down to the purchaser. What they do not want is to have books stacked up on shelves in warehouses. A downturn in book sales will force them to have shorter print-runs and this in turn raises the unit price to the school.
This makes it even more difficult for hard-pressed schools to buy books and so we get on to a downward spiral which could have serious consequences for pupils.
Given the Government's policy on educational spending and the forecast, notwithstanding Gillian Shephard's emollient words at recent teacher conferences, of two further years of tight public-spending rounds, perhaps we have to start asking ourselves the previously unthinkable question: should parents be asked or even required to buy textbooks for their children to use?
We have to assume that state education is free at the point of delivery (give or take a few pencils, rulers and calculators) yet if we look around our European neighbours, we find a very different picture. A snapshot survey taken at a recent conference of the European Secondary Heads Association in Finland reveals that assumptions about state provision are diverse. Sweden, Austria and Greece appear to be the most generous, providing every pupil with the necessary textbooks each year which they then keep for personal use and revision. In Austria, parents with several children claim to have bookcases full of textbooks, and admit that this is wasteful of public money.
In Denmark, Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the situation is similar to ours: books are provided to pupils who return them to the school at the end of the year. The life expectancy of the book varies from three years to 10, according to the quality of its production and the poverty of the country.
A mixed system applies in another group of countries, where books are free up to the end of compulsory schooling or to a change of establishment at 15 or 16. France, Finland, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Norway fall into this category. In Germany arrangements vary somewhat but it is not uncommon for parents to have to contribute 33 per cent of the cost of a book, the remainder being paid for by the Land or region and by the local council.
In the remaining countries represented at the conference (Ireland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Korea and Italy) parents are simply required to buy the books their children need and in the Netherlands parents rent the books every year on the basis of 25 per cent of the cost price. In all these countries safeguards are built into the social security system to enable poor families to buy the books and fund-raising efforts by parents' associations offer a safety net for the very poorest.
None of the heads I spoke to from the countries where parents are required to buy books for some or all of their children's schooling seemed to suffer the agonies of conscience which we have become accustomed to in this country whenever this issue is raised.
The nettle we have to grasp is this: given that the amount of money invested by government is inadequate to meet the needs of pupils, do we simply keep on waiting, hoping that one day things will get better, or do we take a more proactive stance? Many schools, but by no means all, have set up "book trusts", usually through a parents' association, to enable pupils to make a contribution towards the purchase of "extra" books.
In the best cases, these are so organised as to enable parents to give with guaranteed confidentiality, for example, so that no member of the teaching staff knows which parents have contributed so that there can be no accusation of preferential treatment for some pupils. If the book trust is registered as a charity and parents can be persuaded to give by covenant, the school can then reclaim from government some of the tax it is refusing to invest in public expenditure on schools.
The familiar argument is that this will further exacerbate the gap between schools in the wealthier and the poorer areas of the country. The sad fact is that there are already huge discrepancies between different areas of the country because of the vagaries of the standard spending assessment (SSA) system. The national campaign for a reform of the funding mechanism is gathering momentum but it will clearly take some time to come to fruition. Can we afford to miss any opportunity to bring more resources into the educational service?
Some will ask why we should be even considering taking such steps specifically in relation to books when the world stands on the brink of the technological revolution which will bring the Internet into every school. Why fuss about books? However much we may use computer technology in future, the basic skills of reading are essential to its success and books will remain a practical and convenient source of information and pleasure for the foreseeable future. It is in the interests of all our pupils and the public that we support a flourishing book trade so that books can be cheap and accessible.
We may not be able to go overnight to the position in which many of our European neighbours find themselves and require parents to buy textbooks, either when their children start secondary schooling or stay on post-16, but surely we could stop being shamefaced about asking parents to contribute to a book trust? For the price of a weekly lottery ticket, a parent could donate, say, Pounds 4 a month which, if covenanted for four years, would produce a gross annual income to the school of Pounds 64. An average secondary school of 1,000 pupils, with a 50 per cent uptake, could boost its direct spending on books by Pounds 32,000 a year.
This would be seen by some as a capitulation to the Government's policies, "letting them off the hook". I would see it as a movement indicating public commitment to children's learning, alongside a vigorous campaign for a reform of the education funding mechanism of this country and an increase in the quantum allocated to schools.
Peter Downes is president of the Secondary Heads Association but is expressing a personal opinion here.