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Targeting textbooks at exams 'immoral'

Writers attack publishers who tailor resources to specific syllabuses, reports Warwick Mansell

A writers' union this week called on examination boards to stop endorsing GCSE and A-level textbooks, claiming that the "immoral" practice is damaging education.

Boards are profiting by selling endorsement rights to publishers, who then produce books which are so closely geared to test preparation that they are little more than crib-sheets, the writers say.

And it is feared the rise of "all you need to know" endorsed books, promising to help staff to tailor their teaching exactly to the requirements of particular tests, is killing young people's enthusiasm for learning.

The warnings come from the Society of Authors, which has 750 educational writers among its members.

Philip Pullman, author of the acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy and a former chair of the society, said he was concerned that teachers using such textbooks exclusively were simply "teaching to the test".

He said: "If you are teaching with the only aim in mind of getting your kids through the test, you are going to narrow, make shallow, make superficial all the things you are teaching them."

Links between exam boards and publishers have been strengthening in recent years and publishers are increasingly marketing textbooks on the basis of how closely they match exam syllabuses. (See box above right.) In 2003, Pearson, the world's biggest educational publisher, bought the Edexcel board.

And last December another board, AQA, entered into an exclusive deal with Nelson Thornes, endorsing only its resources.

The Joint Council for Qualifications operates a code of practice on textbooks which does not rule out endorsements, but says reading lists in exam syllabuses should include non-endorsed texts.

Several textbook authors have spoken to The TES about their serious concerns over the extent to which exam syllabuses now determine the content of books.

Elizabeth Haylett, secretary of the Society of Authors' educational writers' group, said most of the books endorsed by the boards were "very reductive texts, which are pretty well blueprints for exams".

"Students are not being encouraged to read more widely. That's really worrying," she said.

Sue Palmer, a TES columnist and author of 250 educational books, who serves on the society's committee, described the practice as "immoral".

She said: "This just encourages teaching to the test, making teaching less creative and imaginative. The more you over-focus (on the exam), the less well you teach. It's devastating."

Elizabeth Tribe, director of schools publishing at Hodder Murray, one of the largest educational publishers, admitted that exam-specific textbooks now predominated. But she said this was in response to demand from teachers. She said it would be "commercially stupid" for publishers not to seek endorsements, if the boards were offering them.

A Joint Council for Qualifications spokesman said it would be happy to discuss the matter with the society. The JCQ was confident that boards working closely with publishers helped raise standards.

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Heinemann, the Oxford-based publisher, advertises one English resource as follows: "GCSE English for OCR (exam board)... provides a complete match to OCR. Focuses on assessment objectives."

Edexcel has contacted schools to advertise resources produced under its own brand and distributed by its owner, Pearson, for the board's new maths GCSE. It promises "more Edexcel past exam questions than any other resource".

Hodder Murray, meanwhile, is producing resources said to be tailored precisely to the requirements of four boards' maths GCSEs from this year.

Marketing material for one says A*to A-grade material is annotated in the book so that B-grade candidates "need not study extraneous material".

Oxford University Press is producing "Oxford GCSE maths for Edexcel", offering students' book targeted at four ability levels.

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