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Parents' guides

LEARNING JOURNEY: Ages 3-7; 7-11; 11-16. Parents' guides to the school curriculum. Published by the DfEE, free from schools

These three attractive books contain background information about the curriculum in each key stage and answers to commonly-asked questions from parents. They provide an overview of each subject, tips on how parents can help at home, and summaries of what schools are required to teach and the targets pupils are expected to meet in their SATs. And, usefully, they include glossaries explaining jargon terms such as "SATs".

All the information is in clear, readable English, and the books are well designed and illustrated (the KS1 and 2 books by Children's Laureate, Quentin Blake). Most parents should find them accessible and informative, and teachers should appreciate them too.

Think how useful it will be to refer parents to an authoritative, non-threatening source of information on the curriculum. At between 80 and 130 pages, the books might seem daunting to some parents. But as they'll be available through schools (heads should have received details of how to order by now), they would make an ideal focus for a parents' meeting as children move from one key stage to another. If I were a headteacher, I'd also keep a few copies lying about in the foyer for visitors to browse through, with a sticker explaining that they're available through the school.

Another advertising campaign, aimed directly at parents, is planned for early next year. Incidentally, I hope they're also planning a further book on the foundation stage, as the coverage in the 3-7 book is cursory in the extreme, and its throwaway answer to the question "What can I do to help my child?" ("You're probably doing it already!" ) is in many cases patently not true.

Perhaps the most significant point about the publication of these booklets is how readily I - and presumably many others - have accepted the DfEE's recent extension into educational publishing. These parents' books are the latest in a steady stream of publications that in the past would have been more likely to originate in commercial publishing houses.

There have been, for instance, the Additional Literacy Support teaching materials fo failing readers in Year 3 and 4. Then over the past year, three teacher's books - Progression in Phonics, were distributed to all reception and Year 1 teachers. A key stage 3 literacy book is in preparation, and there are plans for parents' magazines as well as lesson plans on the DfEE website. As well as determining educational policy, it seems the government is increasingly monopolising the market for disseminating teaching resources.

There are pros and cons to this. On the pro side, teachers and parents can be sure that DfEE publications are kosher and up-to-date. We can also assume that they are produced by acknowledged experts, even though they aren't usually named.

On the other hand, how can we be sure the government experts are right? Will this increasing trend towards centralised publications stifle innovation? Will one have to be a "government trusty" to disseminate ideas? And what about publishing expertise? Many of the DfEE publications are dense and unattractive. Teachers need materials that are well-designed and produced and easy to use in the classroom.

On this last point, the department is clearly learning fast - witness the difference between the original National Curriculum of 1995 and the smart new version published last year, featuring colour coding, carefully-designed pages and feel-good examples of children's work. That improvement came about because the publication was subcontracted to a team of experts. The same team has worked on the three parent guides - researching what parents want to know, ensuring the DfEE's response is jargon-free, arranging independent trialling, and creating an attractive finished product.

So we now have an education department that not only creates and enforces national educational policy, but also commissions materials to support it, and farms out the publishing to professionals, while maintaining editorial control.

Like me, you'll probably like these three latest books, and there's no doubt they're what the market wants. So perhaps it's true - if we don't think too hard about it, we can all love Big Brother.

Sue Palmer Sue Palmer is a freelance writer, who has contributed to several DfEE literacy publications

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