What do children and teachers think of the publishers? Victoria Neumark went into two schools to find out
Some children, you will be relieved to know, regard teachers as their most valuable resource despite the plethora of books, videos, tapes, software, cards, CD-Roms and so on which flood the market.
Dinah Warren, head of modern languages at Compton School in Barnet, north London, acknowledges the teacher's centrality, but has some firm ideas about what teaching aids are the best.
She and her Year 8 pupils agree that the two textbooks they use - Avantage for French (Heinemann) and Vaya! for Spanish (Nelson) - are extremely helpful, but that they have flaws.
"They are a bit old-fashioned," explains Ms Warren, "and sometimes we have to do a lot of work to make them usable. We're obsessed with making things look nice in this school and they are a bit drab. Sometimes the vocabulary could be more interesting, too."
The students also use the listening stations and audio-tapes frequently. "We use the tape-to-tape mini-tests which you do with a friend," says Matthew, aged 13. "Then you can publish them in your book if you want."
"The mini-test system lets them do self-assessment," says Ms Warren. Adwoa and Kate, both aged 14, also find the phonetic guides in the books helpful, "they tell you how to pronounce things".
There are many aids which modern language teachers and students still yearn for. According to Dinah Warren: "The OHP transparencies are never any good. They are badly drawn, don't represent a full range of people, or don't illustrate appropriate vocabulary. We make our own, but would love to have some ready drawn to use with each topic."
She would also like a fuller range of language "swipe cards". These produce a correctly pronounced word when swiped through a reader. The child imitates the word, then swipes the card again to check. "A lot of books do word lists for a topic, but we've got assistants to read word lists on to tape both for language learning and for ESL students to take home. Those would be useful to buy. "
Another idea of Ms Warren's finds even greater favour. "If we had a satellite browser we could pick out suitable TV programmes in foreign languages. We do record some of them, but it takes time to track them down and if you could buy the programme with the transcript that would be even better."
Her pupils approve of the idea of directly sampling other cultures - Kate votes for direct subscription to "the magazines that teenagers in France read, just like ours", rather than the stodgy "good-for-you" foreign-language magazines which are staple school fare. Adwoa wants good quality tapes of actual conversations, while Matthew suggests "real" foreign videos "like teenagers watch" and Vinesh eyes computer programs and games in French.
However, some of their criticisms, particularly in science - that the schoolchildren "Terry and Kim" used to illustrate their books were old-fashioned and babyish, that videos were "20 years out of date", that experiments were too slow and "we're not allowed to dissect frogs or blow up the school like at other schools" - sound quite universal. "There's no real life in our science books," object Alessandro and Adwoa.
Humanities gets a better vote. Everyone loves drama and playscripts "which tell you some of the background"; Adwoa enthuses about an annotated Shakespeare, perhaps one of the most traditional publications, and Kate endorses her geography textbook (Interactions, published by Stanley Thornes) as "really interesting".
Vinesh and Alessandro think that virtual reality could be used to bring history and geography alive. "You could sit in a chair and ask to go back in time." Kate wants a nature reserve in the classroom, but if that is not possible, a virtual reality one will do.
Over at Hazelwood juniors in Enfield, London, the children are keen on CD-Roms, though a little unsure as to what they are. "Unfortunately," explains their tea-cher, Alex Frang-eskou, "we haven't got it in our class yet." The school has bought Microsoft's Encarta. Some children have seen CD-Roms like Dorling Kindersley's Body and are keen if wary.
The juniors display the passion for technology which characterises modern youth, particularly male youth, with Ify, aged 11, Chris, 11, and Tamer, 10, all enjoying computer games more than books and wanting more interactives and multimedia. Ify, however, makes a sage observation. "Those educational games," he says, "they're not so good. Once you've wrapped the mummy or built the pyramid, that's it."
This Year 6 group is studying the 19th century. "We loved the real newspapers the local historian brought in," says Harriet. "It would be great to be able to look at them and find out what happened," adds Tamer.
Alex Frangeskou affirms the excitement which real evidence has for pupils. "They like it to be immediate. They fidget when they have to listen."
Videos are popular with Hazelwood pupils: the Channel 4 series How We Used to Live, this term on the Victorians, is well received.
Story tapes and books are less highly rated than information books. The thesaurus, the dictionary and the atlas have made a great impression, especially picture atlases. "Books help you find things out," sums up Harriet, citing Scholastic's The Horrible Histories series as a favourite blend of information and humour.
Alex Frangeskou has her own views. "It is difficult finding books which can grip children's interest. Most primary teachers would like some books which could bridge between simple stories and deeper books, to help the children get the habit of being absorbed."
She and her pupils think highly of the Oxford English series, which offers gram-mar, sentence structure, comprehension and research projects at various levels, but does not operate on the deep imagination. "I wish the maths schemes we use arranged the topics like that," says Ms Frangeskou, "so that you have work for very able, average and less able children on the same topic. We have to go from scheme to scheme, from SPMG to Master Maths and elsewhere to match all abilities."
In other classroom material Ms Frangeskou finds the same problem. "In fact," she sums up, "practically everything that's published could be arranged better, with the needs of the real primary school in mind."
If there was one magical offering from educational publishers, what would Hazelwood junior like? "Dance tapes for the national curriculum," says Ms Frangeskou. "A book that would read you itself," says Narin. "Pictures that help you imagine," says Harriet.